On August 14 mother, activist, and reverend Vernice Warfield died peacefully in her Rochester, New York home with son Thomas at her side. She was 102 years old. Lying on her favourite sofa, Warfield passed in the place where she had made her home since 1952.
Vernice Warfied – son Thomas is on her left (taken from Thomas Warfield’s photo collection on his Facebook page)
Born just 50 years after the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s freeing the slaves, Warfield spent her life as a trailblazer and activist.
She was born Vernice Lavala Smith in Texarkana, Texas on February 2, 1915 – one of eleven children. Taking to heart the expression that charity begins at home, the Smith family shared the products of their garden with neighbours during the Depression.
When World War II broke out the nation was in need of workers, Vernice moved to Seattle where she worked on the assembly line at an aircraft factory.
In 1944 she moved across the country to Rochester, New York where she continued her trailblazing way by becoming one of the first three people of colour to enter the University of Rochester. Making the most of the opportunity; she studied psychology, sociology, philosophy, ethics and history.
A resident of Rochester for some 70 years Vernice created Sunday School classes at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, became an ordained minister at the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, served as pastor for the A.M.E. Zion Church in Auburn, helped to organize parent/teacher associations, chaired Monroe County Adoptive and Foster Care where she fought to ensure all children including those of colour were adopted, was the president for the local chapter of the National Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, helped to create the Urban League of Rochester, created FIGHT – Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today – and holding meetings in the basement of her home, earned the key to the city of Rochester at the age of 99 – she renewed her driver’s license the same year, was still mowing the lawn at 99, and received the Rochester’s Women’s Network W Award at the age of 100. A new housing development is being constructed near the Warfield home and it will bear the family name.
Crediting her long life to loving her fellow human, Vernice said on the occasion of the 100th birthday, “I never thought of people as being black and white and red and brown and yellow. I never thought of it, period. I thought of people as being people, humans of God.”
Predeceased by her husband of over 50 years – Army Band Commander and choir director Robert Warfield, she is survived by her children Wilma, Michael, and Thomas; grandchildren, great grandchildren, and numerous foster children.
Vernice is also the sister-in-law of Rochester Music Hall of Fame member and Broadway performer William Warfield and soprano and Opera star Leontyne Price.
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