Twenty-five years since first election of a black US governor, L Douglas Wilder

Progress has been slow. Other than Wilder, only one other African American – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – has been elected governor of any state. 

Richard M. Johnson
23 November 2014
Douglas Wilder, mayor of Richmond, June, 2007.

Douglas Wilder, mayor of Richmond, June, 2007. Holley St.Germain/Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 7 November 1989, Lawrence Douglas Wilder was elected the 66th governor of Virginia. He differed from the previous sixty-five Virginian governors and every other governor ever elected in any US state: he was black. Today, as we look back at fifty years of civil rights campaigning, Wilder’s candidacy is generally regarded as marking the advent of a new form of black politics to the United States, one which operated outside of majority-black areas and competed with white opponents for white votes.

Virginia was an unlikely setting to be the first state in the nation to elect a black governor. A generation earlier, public schools had been closed by a governor who vowed to cut off his arm before he would allow black children to be educated with whites. The state song was still a hymn which praised the goodness of ‘old massa’ to ‘old darkey’.  In the year of Wilder’s election, one quarter of Southerners told pollsters that they would not vote for a qualified African American for president.

Born in 1931, the grandson of slaves, Wilder was raised in Richmond’s predominantly black Church Hill neighbourhood, two miles from the state capitol. In the city which had once been the capital of the Confederacy and the largest slave-trading city in America, Wilder described his proximity to the legislature as ‘a short distance to walk but a mighty, mighty mountain to climb’.

 ”legal lynching”, 1947.

Martinsville Seven: ”legal lynching”, 1947. Flickr/Dan.H. Some rights reserved.Throughout Wilder’s youth and into his adulthood, the city was almost entirely segregated. Schools, libraries, public toilets, bus station waiting rooms, train station ticket windows, drinking fountains, trams, buses, and lunch counters were all divided by colour. The city had two downtowns: one for whites and one for blacks. Any racial mixing was prohibited by law, convention, and at times violence. In 1951, when Wilder was twenty, Virginia infamously executed seven young black men accused of raping a white woman in an act described by historians as a ‘legal lynching’.

John Marshall hotel in Richmond, where Wilder served all-white patrons as a young man.

John Marshall hotel, where Wilder served all-white patrons as a young man. Flickr/Holley St.Germain. Some rights reserved.Barred from attending the state’s great public universities, Wilder instead attended the all-black Virginia Union University in Richmond, founded by the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War for newly emancipated slaves. Later, Wilder would attend Howard University Law School in Washington. Between undergraduate and postgraduate education, Wilder was drafted as an army private to fight in the Korean War. Serving with distinction, Wilder was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

After law school, Wilder returned to Richmond where he began his practice, representing clients who would eventually make him a very wealthy man. During the 1960s, Wilder was supportive of the civil rights movement but not identified with it. He later reflected, ‘Of course, everybody says they marched on Washington now. I was not there. I didn’t even participate in the pickets in Richmond, but I felt I made my contributions in other ways. I wanted to be the best lawyer I could be so that when I walked into the courtroom people would listen and I could get results’.

In 1969, Wilder was elected to the Virginia state Senate, becoming the first black state senator since Reconstruction. Soon after, Wilder attempted to change the state song, which he considered racially insensitive. The reaction was not positive. Wilder told an interviewer, ‘You would have thought I touched the atom bomb. All hell broke loose. I got letters from all over the world: Go home. Keep your mouth shut. Why don’t you carry your ass back to Africa…’.

Not one to be intimidated, after sixteen years in the state Senate, Wilder decided to run for lieutenant governor.  Concerned about his electability, some Democrats offered him the chairship of the state party if he stepped aside. He refused. After winning, becoming the first African American in the twentieth century elected to statewide office in the South, Wilder celebrated his victory in the Richmond hotel where had waited tables as a young adult. In the same room where white patrons had once called Wilder ‘boy’, they would now call him ‘Lieutenant Governor’.

Virginia State Capitol,2007

Virginia State Capitol,2007 .Flickr/ Holley St.Germain. Some rights reserved.Four years later, Wilder had proven himself a capable candidate to do the unthinkable: he was going to run for governor. He was under no illusions of the difficulty of the task. He explained, ‘It is not only important for the black candidate to be as qualified as his white counterpart, but… in most cases you have to be twice as good as your white competitor if you hope to stand a chance’.

While Wilder did not – and could not -- ignore race, it was not the organising theme of his policy agenda. The key issue of the campaign was the right to an abortion, which had recently faced a Supreme Court challenge in Webster v Reproductive Health Services. Wilder’s opponent Marshall Coleman had previously declared his opposition to abortion under any circumstances, a position which Wilder mercilessly used against Coleman to paint him as an extremist.

While abortion provided the explicit rationale for Wilder’s slogan ‘the New Mainstream’, it was not difficult for voters to interpret the wider significance of the message.

The result was the closest in state history. Wilder edged out his opponent by fewer than 7,000 votes out of more than 1.7 million cast. His margin of victory was less than half a percent. It was built on a coalition which has proven useful for Democrats subsequently: high turnout from solidly supportive African Americans, as well as support from white women and young people.

While Wilder could not have won without the resolute support of African Americans, two-thirds of his total votes were cast by whites. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia explains, ‘a vote for Wilder became a badge of honour – objective proof that they were not racist’. The late Paul Duke, a long-time Richmond reporter, described a vote for Wilder as ‘a redemptive act’.

In the quarter of a century since Wilder was elected, there are signs of progress. This month saw the election of the first black Republican woman to Congress, Mia Love. Tim Scott’s election in South Carolina was the first time an African American was popularly elected to the Senate from the South. Yet, in aggregate, progress has been slow. Other than Wilder, only one other African American – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – has been elected governor of any state.

Speaking to an audience in Petersburg, Virginia during his historic campaign, Wilder insisted, ‘You and I have the responsibility to make certain that what happens on November 7 isn’t something that can happen once in a lifetime but something that should be expected’. The responsibility continues today. Electoral progress for African Americans still remains all too exceptional.

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