L. Douglas Wilder: At Home in the Governor's Mansion

Article excerpt

IT is a hot, sticky evening in Richmond, but L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves, is the epitome of cool as he hosts his first dinner party in the Virginia Executive Mansion, where slaveowners, presidents, aristocrats and diehard racists were once catered to by slaves.

For 177 years, this mansion has been the scene of glittering social events in honor of men and women like the Marquis de LaFayette, Winston Churchill and England's Queen Mother. Here, on the eve of the Civil War, Col. Robert E. Lee came to call, and here, during the war, the body of Stonewall Jackson lay in wake.

The mansion, assumed to have been built partly with slave labor, was first occupied in 1813 by Gov. James Barbour, a wealthy virginian whose lands were vast and slaves many. It is the oldest continuously occupied governor's home in the U.S.

As the governor surveys the embellished columns, heavy brocade drapes, antique furnishings, and tasteful artwork, the rich history of the Mansion makes this night even more significant. While growing up in Richmond's segregated Church Hill neighborhood, he never dreamed that during his lifetime, a Black man would govern the former capital of the Confederacy.

As the governor reflects, he is joined by daughter Loren, who at 27 is a pretty and charming hostess for her bachelor father. A classical quartet plays as visitors sip cocktails in the expansive entrance hall. In the "governor's office" and "front parlor," wealthy tycoons mingle with businessmen and professionals, Black and White, who traveled from all over the state to accept the coveted invitation.

At 8 p.m. the guests are summoned to dinner in the ballroom, where the linen, china and silverware are all embossed or engraved with "Virginia." Throughout the evening, the governor is a gracious host, moving from table to table, making sure that each guest receives his attention.

It is not 7:45 a.m. on the Saturday morning after. The governor is fresh and alert, having already worked out on his Bodysmith exercise system. In the mansion's private parlor upstairs, he discusses items in the Richmond newspaper with Loren, who works with Xerox in Washington, D.C. Adjacent to the master bedroom suite is the governor's study, filled with photographs, mementos and awards, including the NAACP's prestigious Spingharn Award and a pair of bronzed shoes he wore during this 1985 walking tour of the state while he was campaigning for lieutenant governor. There are also a dining room and two other large bedrooms. Much of the artwork here is from his personal collection. He is reputed to have a fine shoe collection.

This is a rare leisurely day for the governor. An eloquent speaker, Wilder--who is limited to one term under Virginia law--is in great demand across the nation, sometimes delivering several speeches in one day.

Over a breakfast of homemade biscuits, sausage, eggs, and fruit--he loves fruit--he talks about life as governor of Virginia, the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents and once a stronghold of the racist South. "I can't honestly say that I have encountered any obstacles because I am Black and that speaks so well of the state," he says. "Now, I'm not suggesting that there might not be vestiges of resentment expressed, but I'm not seeing it, nor have I felt it."

Even so, he remembers well that day in 1982 when, as the infamous story goes, he was deserted by a group of powerful Democratic colleagues as they approached the politically elite Commonwealth Club, where they were to have lunch. Despite civil rights laws and Wilder's status as a respected state senator, his colleagues refused to accompany him into this shrine of the Confederacy, where membership was still for Whites only.

After he was elected Virginia's lieutenant governor in 1985, Wilder was invited to join the Commonwealth Club--and after winning the governor's office, several other all-White clubs--but to this day he has not accepted. …