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Samantha Willis

Journalist, Writer, Co-Creator of the Unmasking Series

Location icon United States

Samantha Willis is an independent journalist and writer whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, HuffPost Life, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media including WRIC ABC 8News, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Virginia Mercury, and Virginia Public Radio (WVTF).

Willis' writing consistently centers African American history, culture and perspectives. Her reporting explores contemporary issues of interest to Black Americans, like maternal health disparities which disproportionately impact Black mothers, and environmental justice campaigns responding to large-scale petrochemical pollution in majority-Black communities in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley." Samantha elevates the historical significance of Virginia's Black-built communities like Jackson Ward in Richmond, Ziontown in Henrico County, and Vinegar Hill in Charlottesville. She has interviewed a plethora of African American history-makers: groundbreaking NASA engineer Dr. Christine Darden and "Hidden Figures" author Margot Shetterly; legendary pianist Herbie Hancock; visual artist Howardena Pindell; Freedom Rider and wife of the late Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker Theresa Walker; and civil rights activist Esther Cooper Jackson, among others.

Willis' writing has earned multiple awards. In April 2019 her feature article about Brook Field Park, where Arthur Ashe first discovered and honed his love for tennis, helped Richmond Magazine win the Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service from the Virginia Press Association; it is the highest award the organization bestows. Willis has presented her work at conferences of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), World Information Architecture Day, and the University of Michigan's School of Environment & Sustainability.

In 2016, while working full time as arts editor at Richmond Magazine, Samantha co-created the Unmasking Series, a public forum examining the historic and contemporary impact of racism in distinct regions of Virginia. The series began in Richmond after a blackface scandal rocked the city (#UnmaskingRVA) and continued in Charlottesville (#UnmaskingCville) in June 2018, nearly a year after white supremacist groups brought deadly violence to the city. Samantha is currently developing an Unmasking program in Hampton Roads in partnership with Virginia Humanities and the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, slated for October and November 2019.

A graduate of Hanover County Public Schools, Willis studied English and Creative Writing at Radford University. She is a member of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, and volunteers in various capacities throughout her community. Willis lives in central Virginia with her husband Jamaal and two sons, and is expecting her third child in December.

Portfolio
Scalawag
08/05/2019
The Departed and Dismissed of Richmond

This is the first of a two-part series on the fate of the Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves in Richmond, Virginia. It is dark and noisy beneath the towering pillars holding Interstate 64 over what looks like wasted space near 5th and Hospital Streets in Richmond, Virginia.

richmondmagazine.com
07/01/2019
Thinking While Black

In May, when technology billionaire Robert Johnson relieved the Morehouse College class of 2019's $40 million dollars of student loan debt, the country first applauded - and then started asking questions: Why is college so expensive, and is it unfairly so?

richmondmagazine.com
06/09/2019
Freedom Day

The first time I remember hearing the word "Juneteenth," I was a kid with a toothy smile squirming my way through another long church service. Somebody made an announcement about a neighboring church's upcoming Juneteenth celebration, and it puzzled me. I knew what a celebration was, and I knew that June meant summertime; but what was Juneteenth?

DownBeat Magazine
03/29/2019
'Songs Of Our Native Daughters' Gives Ancestors Voice

When she sings certain songs, Rhiannon Giddens feels herself become an oracle. The medium her messengers speak through is music; the messengers, she says, are her ancestors long passed from the earthly plane. They are daughters of Africa-brought to this country in chains, owned by white men who enslaved them, mutilated them and put babies into their bellies only to sell them once born.

Virginia Mercury
03/05/2019
Birthing while black: African-American women face disproportionate risks during pregnancy -...

In Virginia, black women are three times more likely to suffer a pregnancy-related death than white women, reflecting a national pattern of racial disparities in maternal health outcomes. Each year in America, more than 700 women die during or soon after pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the ratio of maternal deaths per 100,000 live ...

Columbia Journalism Review
02/22/2019
Virginia blackface scandal: Journalists share their experiences

On February 4, Virginia residents gathered outside the governor's mansion in Richmond to call for Ralph Northam's resignation. A racist image from his medical school yearbook page had surfaced on a right-wing news site. Soon, Northam and General Mark Herring, the attorney general, admitted to wearing blackface.

Glamour
06/29/2018
Thomas Jefferson Owned Hundreds of Slaves-Now a Black Woman Will Run His Foundation

She is long dead, but the presence of Sally Hemings looms larger than life at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the plantation where she was enslaved for most of her life and where a $35 million restoration of the grounds made way for the "Life of Sally Hemings" exhibit-a modest room tucked away in a wing of the great mansion that curators hope will encompass the story of a woman whose life and legacy was often ignored in history, lest it mar a great man's legacy.

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