Meet the first black men in leadership roles in U.S. politics

Farida Dawkins January 17, 2018

Photo credit: The New York Times

Lawrence Douglas WilderFirst elected Black Governor in the U.S.

Wilder was born on January 17, 2018, in Richmond, Virginia.  His grandparents were slaves and his parents were not.  Although not poor, he does describe experiencing some poverty during the Great Depression. Wilder financed his college education while attending Virginia Union University by waiting tables and shining shoes. In 1951 he earned his degree in chemistry.  He joined the Army also in 1951 and served in a combat role during the battle of Pork Chop Hill persuading 19 Chinese Soldiers into a concession for which he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal.  In 1953 after his enlistment, Wilder began pursuing his master’s degree in chemistry but in 1956 redirected his efforts and enrolled in law school at Howard University Law School.  In 1959 he instituted his own law practice in Richmond, Virginia.

The commencement of his political career was in 1969 when he was elected to Virginia State Senate during a special election. This enabled him to become the first African-American elected to Virginia Senate since Reconstruction.  In 1985 Wilder was elected for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and in 1989 won the seat for Governor being the first African-American to do so; he was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for this achievement.

Wilder’s focus during his reign as governor was gun control, crime, and transportation initiatives successfully lobbying for the allocation of funds to state transportation programs.  He spearheaded a stand against apartheid in South Africa by formulating an order that forced state agencies and universities to dissociate themselves in any investment programs with South Africa.

In 1992 Wilder briefly ran for president before dropping out of the race and in 1994 briefly ran for U.S. Senate as an independent.

In 1994, Wilder became the mayor of Richmond nevertheless didn’t run for a second term.

After his political career, Wilder became the adjunct professor of public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and occasionally writes for various Virginia newspapers. He founded the United States National Slavery Museum. Wilder has been honored by having buildings at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State University and Hampton University respectively named after him. Wilder has received an honorary degree from Arizona State University and has a middle school named after him.

Wilder’s collection of papers and a gallery can be found at the L. Douglas Wilder Library and Resource Center at Virginia Union University.


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