The remarkable life of Vernoca Michael
By Jay Nachman
Anyone who has counted Paul Robeson, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Frazier and August Wilson as friends has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Those are just some of the people Vernoca Michael, 78, of Cobbs Creek, has befriended during a remarkable life of mixing business and service.
Michael was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a Methodist minister father and a mother who performed internationally as a singer, then became a missionary. She got to know Dr. King because he had studied in Boston. He was friends with her father and lived with a member of her father’s church.
Michael attended college at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but graduated from Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. She went to the school with her sister so they could participate in the civil rights movement.
“In those days, students were protesting and firing up the colleges and the streets of southern communities.” Michael said.
After graduation, Michael moved to Walnut Street in West Philadelphia, where her parents were living across the street from a close family friend, Paul Robeson, who she knew all her life as “Uncle Paul.” He lived with his sister Marian Forsythe. When Michael bought her first car, she recalled that her mother said, “Well, you know you’ll be driving Aunt Marian and Uncle Paul, too.” And, she did. Michael would chauffeur the legendary performer and activist to various appointments and activities.
Michael continued her post-graduate education at the University of Pennsylvania, earning two master’s degrees in community organization and city planning, with additional concentrations in regional planning, business, finance and law.
Her professional resume is extensive and dotted with firsts. She was assistant to one of the commissioners of Philadelphia’s Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (now known as Behavioral Health and disAbility Services). While living and working in Philadelphia, she became the country’s first African American to serve as a manager of allocations for a United Way. She co-founded the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium and was an executive of the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County. She was also the first African American national director of a leading international accounting firm.
In the early 1970s, she helped create PCA, along with PCA’s first President and CEO Rodney D. Williams and others, and served on the PCA Board of Directors for 15 years. She also taught financial management at Temple University and lectured at other colleges, locally and throughout the country. Along the way, she assisted in raising 13 neighborhood children.
“I’ve never been a big sleeper,” Michael said.
In the early 1990s, Michael became a partner in North Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon boxing venue. After being prohibited from attending fight promotion meetings, she became the world’s first African American female boxing promoter.
“My head hit the ceiling, and the Lord just pushed my head down saying, ‘Don’t get mad. Get even,’” said Michael, who earned the moniker “Queen/First Lady” at the Blue Horizon, where she became its president and CEO.
“I learned to love the boxers,” Michael said. “Since I only had them for a short period of time, I wanted to teach them things that they could use for life.”
She arranged lessons in finances, elocution (clear, articulate speech) and etiquette for the boxers. Michael also arranged for her business associates to donate suits, shirts and ties for the boxers. She established a learning center, NIA KUUMBA, and served over 18,000 people.
The famous boxer Joe Frazier was her close friend. She knew him prior to becoming a boxing promoter because Frazier came to her father’s church to pray before his fights.
“I didn’t know him from a boxing point of view,” she said. “I knew him from a religious point of view.”
Michael also became friends with playwright and boxing fan August Wilson, who would come to the Blue Horizon to see her.
In 2016, Michael became executive director of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance/Paul Robeson House & Museum. Her goals were to help shore up the organization and to maintain the legacies of Robeson and the organization’s founder, Frances Aulston.
She retired from the Paul Robeson House & Museum in 2020, after the two building’s mortgages were paid off. But, as is her steadfast nature, Michael remains on the board of this and other organizations, despite her doctor’s admonishment to slow down. Michael is also working on writing her memoir and histories of herself and of The Blue Horizon.
My parents were very active in the community all my life,” Michael said. “I saw them do that kind of thing, so I think it came naturally to me. I always have done more than one thing at a time.”
Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.