I grew up in Chesterfield County, Va., in Bon Air, a rural hamlet west of Richmond. Times were difficult for my family and others in our neighborhood. Though money was scarce, my parents often found money to purchase the Richmond AFRO newspaper. Our entire family looked forward to reading it. 

Everybody knew everybody in Bon Air. The families supported one another. Whenever an adult noticed inappropriate behavior by anyone’s child, it was swiftly corrected and reported to the parents.

As a curious high school student at Carver High, the only high school for African Americans in all of Chesterfield County, I wanted to broaden my knowledge beyond my community and school. One day in 1958, while reading the AFRO, I noticed a section called “Pen Pals” As the middle child, I often felt overlooked in the family. My parents had each other, as did my two older siblings and my two younger siblings. I felt left out. I placed my name and address in the Richmond AFRO to find a pen pal to learn about the lifestyles of others.

Two or three people responded, but our pen pal relationships soon ended. Then, I started writing a sergeant in the U.S. Marines who was stationed in D.C. We exchanged letters, pictures and post cards. We shared stories about our families and he told me about his work. When I was a junior in high school, we decided that we should meet face to face. I invited him to my home. He met my parents and siblings. He later also met many of my neighbors. It became a joke among the neighbors. Whenever they saw his 1957 yellow Ford Fairlane 500 convertible drive through Bon Air, they would say, laughing, “He’s the one the middle Booker girl ordered from the AFRO newspaper.”

I recall many Sunday afternoons when my Marine and I went to Bayshore Beach, a segregated beach in the Tidewater area. We ate, talked and laughed. But after two years, we began to grow apart. His travels increased and during my senior year of high school, I met someone else. Though we continued to exchange letters, he visited less frequently. Our last correspondence was in 196l. God allowed this extraordinary military man, my pen pal, to make my life as a teenager more fulfilling.

Congratulations AFRO-American Newspapers on 120 Years! The AFRO will always
have a special place in my heart and memories!

Wood, 70, is retired from the federal government. She lost contact with Sgt. John Hardy, her pen pal, but learned several years ago that he has since died. She is the author of “Middle Child: This Is My Story.” The foreword was penned by legendary AFRO writer Sam Lacy.

Barbara Booker Wood

Special to the AFRO