A voice for Virginia’s Native Americans
The cement path in Capitol Square spirals like a nautilus, leading to a fountain and meditation circle inscribed with the names of Virginia Indian tribes and the rivers that ran near their homes.
Called “Mantle,” the abstract monument to local Native Americans was dedicated in April. Its name is symbolic on several levels — referring to the mantle of the earth, the mantle of responsibility given to leaders, and even the mollusk’s organ that builds its protective outer shell.
At the monument’s dedication, Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield recited a poem she wrote about it:
Mantle is a chief’s cloak
A pathway, water
A seat for the weary
Strong from the remembrance of the rivers and the people
Strong from the beginning of time, unto eternity
A tribute to the first Americans
Broaddus-Crutchfield’s advocacy for Native Americans led former governor, now U.S. senator, Tim Kaine to appoint her to the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission. Instead of adding another statue to Capitol Square, commissioners chose a symbolic memorial.
“We wanted a tribute rather than a memorial,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said, “because we wanted to recognize not only the dead, but also those still living and yet to come.
“Instead of depicting a static moment in time, [the spiral monument] represents time itself: thousands of years of existence, 400 years of wrongs, contemporary achievements, and a brighter future all the way to eternity.”
Working with area tribes
For Broaddus-Crutchfield, who lives in Midlothian, honoring Native Americans is a central element of her life as an activist.
In 1999, when Newport News wanted to build a $200 million dam and 1,500-acre reservoir on the Mattaponi River — a project that would have flooded sacred Native American sites and disrupted a shad hatchery — Broaddus-Crutchfield joined forces with the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, descendants of the people who greeted Captain John Smith in 1607.
She wrote a book, Saving the Mattaponi, in 2001, to help pay the tribe’s legal expenses. Ultimately, a court ruling in favor of the tribe, together with federal environmental concerns, led the city to abandon the project in 2009.
Broaddus-Crutchfield believes she is part Native American, but has no way to verify it. “As children, we were told we had Indian blood, probably Pamunkey or Mattaponi. One of my uncles, Edmunds Mason Cobb, relinquished ownership of the family farm and moved to Winslow, Arizona, to live with the Indians,” she said.
In explaining the difficulty of proving ancestry, Broaddus-Crutchfield points a sharp finger at Dr. Walter Plecker, Virginia’s vital statistics registrar from 1912 to 1946, who destroyed many Native Americans’ records, making it difficult or impossible today for people like her to prove tribal connections.
At root, she says it’s simple morality that pushes her to advocate for Native Americans. “Powhatan [the chief at the time the first settlers landed in Jamestown] made a decision not to kill Europeans. His people taught them how to grow corn. And we cannot admit they exist? The Mantle is not enough to pay for all the wrongs, but it’s a start.”
Broaddus-Crutchfield also advocated for federal recognition of Virginia’s tribes “to tell the story of our Virginia Indians, alive and well on land they occupied long before [Europeans landed in] Jamestown, much less the founding of the United States.” Congress finally gave six Virginia tribes recognition in 2017.
Broaddus-Crutchfield also advocates for environmental protection, women and other causes.
A twice-widowed, 75-year-old grandmother, she explains, “I am motivated by what I see as injustice and cruelty. Growing up in Virginia, I never understood why we had different bathrooms, water fountains and seating in buses, theaters and restaurants for blacks and whites.
“And back then, boys had more freedom than girls. Later, I was assaulted in the workplace. I have LGBTQ friends who have been mistreated. I see what humans are doing to Mother Earth, our waters and to harmless creatures that have no voice.”
In 1998, when Hanover County wanted to build a sewage plant that would discharge five million gallons of effluent daily into the Pamunkey River and impair a fish hatchery, she mobilized. Though ultimately unsuccessful, her efforts delayed the plan for eight years. On Halloween 2000, she and other activists lined Mechanicsville Turnpike with 360 toilets to send a message to local officials.
Broaddus-Crutchfield’s advocacy for Native Americans and women merged when she convinced officials to give female chief Cockacoeske a prominent place on a proposed monument showcasing Virginia women,
titled “Voices from the Garden.”
Most American school children learn about Pocahontas, but Cockacoeske? Cockacoeske became chief of the Pamunkey Tribe when her husband, Totopotomoy, was killed in the 1656 Battle of Bloody Run. She negotiated a peace treaty with the British and cemented unity among the Powhatan Confederacy.
“It is largely because of her efforts that there are still Native people living in Virginia today,” said Broaddus-Crutchfield.
Broaddus-Crutchfield journeyed to Washington for the 2017 Women’s March and the 2018 March for Our Lives. She is now fighting two natural gas pipelines planned to stretch across the state.
“Frances impresses me with her many philanthropic endeavors that positively impact the quality of life of others. She is leaving a lasting legacy,” said Virginia Delegate Chris Peace.
Broaddus-Crutchfield’s childhood dream was to be a Broadway actress. At her father insistence that she attend a southern girls’ college, she went to Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C. She then went on to get a master’s degree in theater from Columbia University.
While aspiring to get on the stage, she took odd jobs, like working in a New York City bookstore. But when her father became ill, she returned to Virginia and survived on a few more odd jobs, including one as Santa Claus’s elf.
Although making a living in theater in Richmond was a challenge, she did land some acting jobs. She was in The Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Richmond’s former Barn Theater in the late 1970s.
She had a role in Iron-Jawed Angels, a film about the U.S. suffrage movement of the early 1900s, and was an extra in a movie about Lady Astor’s life.
She had one line in the movie Kennedy, in which she portrayed a nun. Martin Sheen played JFK. She shook Sheen’s hand and said, “Bless you, sir.”
She chuckles about how through that gig she ended up in People magazine. Covered in an 11-piece, black nun’s habit on a 99-degree day, during a filming break, the “nuns” pulled their habits up over their knees to cool off. A People magazine photographer snapped a shot of the bare-legged nuns — not exactly the type of publicity she had sought!
Except for seven years in New York City, Broaddus-Crutchfield has always lived in the Richmond area. On a ski trip to Vermont, she met Meade Broaddus, a farmer. They had a son, Henry. But five months after Henry’s birth, Meade died in a vehicle accident en route to set up ski races at Virginia’s Wintergreen Resort.
Later, she married George Crutchfield, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and head of the School of Mass Communication. He died of heart failure in 2011.
A fellow advocate and 20-year friend, Glen Besa, summed up Broaddus-Crutchfield’s advocacy: “Whether it’s the environment, women’s issues or racism, wherever there is injustice, Frances is likely to be there fighting for the rights of others and holding our politicians accountable.”
Broaddus-Crutchfield has received several awards for her volunteer work and writing. In addition to the poem for “Mantle’s” dedication, she wrote poems about the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, bin Laden’s death, and former President Barack Obama’s first year.
“I want to be a poet when I grow up,” she said. “I’m old, but not grown up.”
Grown up or not, she charges on, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
As Broaddus-Crutchfield describes her mission: “I want to leave this world better than I found it, to accomplish something so that it will matter that I was here.”