ⓘ Douglas Wilder


ⓘ Douglas Wilder

Lawrence Douglas Wilder is an American lawyer and politician who served as the 66th Governor of Virginia, from 1990 to 1994. He was the first African American to serve as governor of a U.S. state since Reconstruction, and the first elected African-American governor.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Wilder graduated from Virginia Union University and served in the United States Army during the Korean War. He established a legal practice in Richmond after graduating from the Howard University School of Law. A member of the Democratic Party, Wilder won election to the Virginia Senate in 1969. He remained in that chamber until 1986, when he took office as the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, becoming the first African American to hold statewide office in Virginia. In the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election, Wilder narrowly defeated Republican Marshall Coleman.

Wilder left the gubernatorial office in 1994, as the Virginia constitution prohibited governors from seeking re-election. He briefly sought the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, but withdrew from the race before the first primaries. He also briefly ran as an independent in the 1994 Virginia Senate election before dropping out of the race. Wilder returned to elective office in 2005, when he became the first directly-elected Mayor of Richmond. After leaving office in 2009, he worked as an adjunct professor and founded the United States National Slavery Museum.


1. Early life

Wilder was born on January 17, 1931, in the segregated Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. He is the son of Beulah Olive Richards and Robert Judson Wilder. He is the grandson of slaves, his paternal grandparents having been enslaved in Goochland County. The seventh of eight brothers and sisters, Wilder was named for the African American writers Paul Laurence Dunbar and Frederick Douglass.

Wilders father sold insurance and his mother worked as a maid. While the family was never completely destitute, Wilder recalled his early years during the Great Depression as a childhood of "gentle poverty."

Wilder worked his way through Virginia Union University, a historically black university, by waiting tables at hotels and shining shoes, graduating in 1951 with a degree in chemistry.

Drafted into the United States Army during the Korean War, he volunteered for combat duty. At the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, he and two other men found themselves cut off from their unit, but they bluffed nineteen Chinese soldiers into surrendering, for which Wilder was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. He was a sergeant when he was discharged in 1953.

Following the war, Wilder worked in the state medical examiners office and pursued a masters degree in chemistry. In 1956 he changed his career plans and entered Howard University Law School. After graduating in 1959, he established a law practice in Richmond, the Virginia capital.

Wilder married Eunice Montgomery in 1958. The couple had three children before divorcing in 1978: Lynn Diana; Lawrence Douglas Jr.; and Loren Deane.


2. Political career

Douglas Wilder had joined the Democratic Party and began his career in public office by winning a 1969 special election for the Virginia State Senate from a Richmond-area district. He was the first African American elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. A 1970 redistricting gave Wilder a predominantly African-American district, and he became a liberal in a predominantly conservative, white-majority legislature.

Wilder briefly flirted with an independent bid for the United States Senate in 1982. He did so after the initial favorite for the Democratic nomination, State Delegate Owen Pickett of Virginia Beach, paid homage to the Byrd Organization in announcing his bid. Angered that Pickett would praise a political machine who obstinately resisted racial integration, Wilder threatened to make an independent bid for the seat if Pickett won the nomination. Pickett not only realized that Wilder was serious, but that he would siphon off enough black votes in a three-way race to hand the seat to the Republican nominee, Congressman Paul Trible. Pickett pulled out of the race, and Wilder abandoned plans to run for the Senate.

In 1985 Wilder was narrowly elected as the 35th Lieutenant Governor of Virginia on a Democratic ticket headed by Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, the partys candidate for governor. Wilder was the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia. Aware that he needed to reach the swath of the states majority-white electorate, Wilder had undertaken a two-month "back roads" campaign tour of the state, visiting Virginias predominantly rural central and western regions and enhancing his name recognition across the state.


2.1. Political career Governor of Virginia

Wilder was elected governor on November 8, 1989, defeating Republican Marshall Coleman by a spread of less than half a percent. The narrow victory margin prompted a recount, which reaffirmed Wilders election. He was sworn in on January 13, 1990 by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. In recognition of his landmark achievement as the first elected African-American governor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Wilder the Spingarn Medal for 1990.

Wilder had a comfortable lead in the last polls before the election. The unexpected closeness of the election may have been due to the Republicans strong get out the vote efforts. Wilder had been candid about his pro-choice position in relation to abortion. Some observers believed the close election was caused by the Bradley effect, and suggested that white voters were reluctant to tell pollsters that they did not intend to vote for Wilder.

During his tenure as governor, Wilder worked on crime and gun control initiatives. He also worked to fund Virginias transportation initiatives, effectively lobbying Congress to reallocate highway money to the states with the greatest needs. Much residential and office development had taken place in Northern Virginia without its receiving sufficient federal money for infrastructure improvements to keep up. He also succeeded in passing state bond issues to support improving transportation. In May 1990 Wilder ordered state agencies and universities to divest themselves of any investments in South Africa because of its policy of apartheid, making Virginia the first Southern state to take such action.

During his term, Wilder carried out Virginias law on capital punishment, although he had stated his personal opposition to the death penalty. There were 14 executions by the electric chair, including the controversial case of Roger Keith Coleman. In January 1994 Wilder commuted the sentence of Earl Washington Jr., an intellectually disabled man, to life in prison based on testing of DNA evidence that raised questions about his guilt. Virginia law has strict time limits on when such new evidence can be introduced post-conviction. But in 2000, under a new governor, an STR-based DNA test led to the exclusion of Washington as the perpetrator of the murder for which he had been sentenced. He was fully exonerated by Governor Jim Gilmore for the capital murder and he was released from prison.

As Virginia limits consecutive gubernatorial terms, he was succeeded in 1994 after the election of George Allen.


3. Policies

Since the 1970s Wilder has supported the death penalty. He generally ran on "anti-crime" platforms. In response to a waning budget balance due to state economic problems, Wilder supported some of the most dramatic cuts in the United States in allocations for higher education.

In the mid-1990s Wilder was scrutinized for his attacks on fellow Democrat Chuck Robb and support of Republican Mark Earley. Wilder declared himself a candidate for President in 1992, but withdrew before primary season had ended. He briefly ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent in 1994.


4. Mayor of Richmond

On May 30, 2004, Wilder announced his intention to run for Mayor of Richmond. Until recently, the Richmond City Council chose the mayor from among its 9 members. The move to change this policy succeeded in November 2003 when voters approved a mayor-at-large referendum, with roughly 80 percent voting in favor of the measure. Wilder was a leading proponent of the mayor-at-large proposal.

On November 2, 2004, Wilder received 79% of the vote 55.319 votes to become the first directly elected Mayor of Richmond in sixty years. Upon winning the election, Wilder communicated his intentions to take on corruption in the city government. He issued several ultimatums to the sitting City Council before he took office. He was sworn in on January 2, 2005.

He was a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, a bi-partisan group with a stated goal of "making the public safer by getting illegal guns off the streets." The Coalition was co-chaired by former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

On May 16, 2008 Wilder announced that he would not seek reelection to another four-year term as mayor.


5. Post-political career

Wilder has continued as an adjunct professor in public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University within the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. He writes occasional editorials for Virginia newspapers.

Douglas Wilder is the founder of the United States National Slavery Museum, a non-profit organization based in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The museum has been fundraising and campaigning since 2001 to establish a national museum on slavery in America. In June 2008 Wilder requested that the museum be granted tax exempt status, which was denied. From that time, taxes on the land had not been paid and the property was at risk of being sold at auction by the city of Fredericksburg.

Beset by financial problems the museum has been assessed delinquent property taxes for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011 amounting to just over $215.000. The organization filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection on September 22, 2011. Early in 2011 Douglas Wilder was refusing to respond to or answer any questions from either news reporters or patrons who had donated artifacts.

Wilder made news in 2012 when he refused to support Barack Obama, the nations first black president, for another term. He noted that he supported Obama in 2008, but said the presidents tenure in the Oval Office thus far had been a disappointment. Wilder did not endorse Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, and later said that he hoped for an Obama victory despite having gone to a Romney fundraiser.

In 2015, Wilder published an autobiography, Son of Virginia: A Life in Americas Political Arena.

In March 2018, Wilder filed suit against John Accordino, who was serving as the Dean of his namesake college, for harassing Wilders assistant. This led to Accordino stepping down from his position and Susan Gooden being named as the interim dean of the college and then Wilder dropping the suit 4 months after filing.

In March 2019, Sydney Black filed a complaint under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 against Wilder for sexual harassment after she claims he made sexual advances to her, which she rebuffed, and then told her later that there was no funding for her position at the Virginia Commonwealth University. In July 2019, the universitys independent investigator concluded that Wilder did kiss the student without her consent. In response, Wilder provided a detailed rebuttal, in which he denied "non-consensual sexual contact” between Black and him. In addition, he denied retaliating against her by saying her position had been eliminated. Wilder also claimed the investigator ignored contradictory evidence, including his claim that Black called him eight times after the night during which he supposedly kissed her, something she presumably would not have done if she felt harassed or threatened. The university planned to consider the investigators findings and Wilders rebuttal before deciding what action to take, if any. On October 24, 2019, Wilder announced that the universitys internal review panel had cleared him of wrongdoing.


6. Honors and awards

  • Virginia State University named its Cooperative Extension Building the L. Douglas Wilder Building
  • In 1996, L. Douglas Wilder Middle School was named in honor of former governor Wilder.
  • The Virginia Union University library, Norfolk State Universitys performing arts center, and a Hampton University dormitory are also named after Governor Wilder.
  • In 2004, Virginia Commonwealth University named its School of Government and Public Affairs in honor of L. Douglas Wilder. Wilder serves as an adjunct faculty member at the school.
  • Wilder also received an Honorary Doctorate from Arizona State University in 2004.

7. Personal papers

The L. Douglas Wilder Collection resides at the L. Douglas Wilder Library and Learning Resource Center at Wilders alma mater, Virginia Union University. The collection contains press office photographs from Wilders time as Governor, over 600 audio cassette tapes of Wilders WRVA radio talk show as well as other speeches, and over 350 video cassettes of political events, campaign materials, and news appearances. A gallery located in the library also displays many of Wilders political recognitions and awards.