Douglas Wilder, governor Douglas Wilder

Douglas Wilder, First Elected Black Governor

January 17, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Douglas Wilder of Virginia is a political trailblazer who in 1989 became the first black man ever to be elected governor in the United States.

Douglas Wilder’s Early Life

Lawrence Douglas Wilder, named after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, was born on Jan. 17, 1931, in Richmond, Va. He attended Virginia Union University and, after graduating at age 20, was drafted into the army to fight in the Korean War.

Wilder earned a Bronze Star for leading “a group of POW's under his watch through artillery fire to rescue a group of wounded American soldier,” according to The HistoryMakers. After the war, Wilder went on to earn a law degree from Howard University and open a law firm in Virginia.

Wilder’s Career in Politics

Wilder entered politics in 1969 and won a place in the Virginia state Senate, becoming the first black man to do so since Reconstruction. He earned recognition early in his career for speaking put against Virginia’s state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which presented a romanticized view of slave life.

In 1985, Wilder was elected lieutenant governor, making him the first black man to win a statewide election in Virginia. Four years later, he was the Democratic nominee for governor against Republican Marshall Coleman.

Wilder defeated Coleman by less than half a percent, even though pre-election polls had predicted that he would win comfortably. Polling experts believed that many voters had lied to pollsters about their intent to vote for him (a phenomenon known as the Bradley effect).

Furthermore, Wilder’s Democratic running mates, both white, won by larger margins in their elections. Exit polls conducted by The New York Times and CBS revealed that many voters had indeed based their vote on race: one in 10 Coleman supporters admitted Wilder’s race was a “major” factor in their vote, while 4 in 10 of black voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Wilder, said that race had been a major or minor factor.

Wilder’s victory withstood a recount and he was sworn into office on Jan. 13, 1990. The Times declared that his swearing-in ceremony “changed the political face of the United States” as “a It added that he also became “the nation's highest ranking black elected official, a political figure to be reckoned with nationally, a symbol not just of a changing state but of a changing South and a changing nation.”

In his one term in office (governors in Virginia are unable to run for re-election), Wilder prioritized cutting the budget and reducing crime. In 1991, he entered the Democrat presidential primaries, but dropped out after failing to build widespread support. His failed presidential run hurt his standing in Virginia.

After his term as governor ended, Wilder left politics and went on to lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University and open the National Slavery Museum. He returned to politics in 2004 when, after successfully lobbying for the city of Richmond to allow for the direct election of mayors, he ran for mayor himself and won. Wilder called the city “a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency” and fought against many city politicians to enact reform. According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, under Wilder “the city's crime rate went down, while its financial health improved.”

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