The First Black Elected Governor: L. Douglas Wilder Makes History with His Election to Virginia's Top Post

By Randolph, Laura B. | Ebony, February 1990 | Go to article overview
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The First Black Elected Governor: L. Douglas Wilder Makes History with His Election to Virginia's Top Post


Randolph, Laura B., Ebony


The First Black Elected Governor

IN VIRGINIA, the story is infamous. Since election day 1989--the day L. Douglas Wilder made history by becoming the country's first elected Black governor--it has become political legend.

It was 1982, and even though then Virginia state Senator Wilder had made history 13 years earlier by becoming the first Black legislator to serve in the state Senate since Reconstruction, he was still an outsider to Virginia's political aristocracy. Wilder may have been a senator, but he was a Black senator.

And so when he went to lunch with some powerful Democratic colleagues at the Commonwealth Club, the hallowed temple of Virginia's political elite, one by one he was deserted by his friends, who refused to accompany him into the club. Civil rights laws were one thing, but this was Virginia, the Old Dominion, the shrine of the Confederacy. And everyone knew membership in the Commonwealth Club was White only.

It is almost a decade now since Wilder's colleagues refused to break bread or the color line with him at the Commonwealth Club. Now they, along with the majority of the Virginia electorae, have served him his just deserts. It is a tradition that the Commonwealth Club extends the governor a personal invitation to join. In a sweet piece of irony, Wilder declined.

"I belong to enough clubs right now," explains the governor without a hint of indignation or a flicker of fury. And it didn't take winning the governship for the invitation to be extended. "I was asked [in 1985] after I became lieutenant governor to be a member of the club," he says.

That turnabout reflects just how far Virginia, and by implication the entire nation, has come. Clearly, a major realignment of attitudes has occurred. In one of the closest elections in Virginia history (less than a 1 percent majority), Wilder won almost half (39 percent) of the White vote in a state in which the electorate is overwhelmingly (80 percent) White. What's more, the race produced the largest voter turnout in Virginia history, with a record 1.78 million ballots cast.

It is against this backdrop that Wilder offers what he believes is the critical fact missed by most: "I had more White votes cast for me than for any Democrat ever running--period-for governor of Virginia."

Undoubtedly that is why wilder, 58, can discuss the luncheon incident with such steely calm. Looking back on it from the view of the Governor's Mansion has a way of adding perspective. But the real question, the question that brings us closest to the true reasons behind his historic victory and provides the key to the character of the manwho could, in the face of such prejudice, still rewrite history, is how did he do it?

The answer is simple: he believed in himself. Long before that day, Wilder was convined of his destiny.

"As a boy, when I would read that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights . . . I knew it meant me. I've said all along that this election is not a 'me' thing, it's a 'we' thing," says the governor in his genteel Virginia drawl.

Today it's a "we thing." Everybody loves a winner. But it didn't start out that way 21 years ago when Wilder began his political career as the only Black in the Virginia state Senate. In his first speech as a senator, Wilder stupefied his colleagues when he did the unthinkable: He attacked the state's official anthem, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." Its lyrics, about "an old darky" longing to go to Heaven so he could serve his White masters, constituted, Wilder says, "psychological slavery."

"I know personally that there are so many of you who are not of a persuasion to . . . downgrade . . . a race of people," the rookie legislator told his colleagues. Later, he introduced a bill to decertify the song. The bill never passed, but the song, Wilder says firmly, "is never sung.

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