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Lawrence Douglas Wilder (born January 17, 1931) is an American politician, the first African American to be elected as governor of a U.S. state, and the second to serve as governor. Wilder served as Governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994. When earlier elected as Lieutenant Governor, he was the first African American elected to statewide office in Virginia. His most recent political office was Mayor of Richmond, Virginiamarker, which he held from 2005 to 2009.

Early life and career

Wilder was born in Richmond, the seventh of eight children of Robert and Beulah (Richards) Wilder. The grandson of American slaves, he was named after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He attended racially segregated George Mason Elementary School and Armstrong High School. He did his undergraduate work at Virginia Union University, where he graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1951. Wilder is a prominent life member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., an intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by and for African Americans.

Wilder then served in the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star for heroism at Chop Hill. He rose to leadership in his first experience in an integrated environment, as President Truman had desegregated the military. After his service, Wilder gained a law degree at Howard University School of Law under the G.I. Bill. Virginia university law schools did not then admit African Americans. He graduated in 1959 and co-founded the law firm Wilder, Gregory, and Associates.

Marriage and family

On October 11, 1958, Wilder married Eunice Montgomery. Before their divorce in 1978, they had three children: Loren, Lynn, and Lawrence Douglas, Jr.

Political career

Wilder began his career in public office after winning a 1969 special election to the Senate of Virginia from a Richmond-area district. He was the first African American elected as state Senator in Virginia since Reconstruction. A 1970 redistricting gave Wilder a predominantly African-American district, and he was repeatedly re-elected into the 1980s. Although a liberal in a conservative legislature, he worked hard and gained influence through committee chairmanships when he gained seniority.

In 1985, still holding office in the state Senate, Wilder was narrowly elected Lieutenant Governor of Virginia on a Democratic ticket under then-Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles. Baliles was also from Richmond. Wilder was the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia. Knowing he needed to find a way to reach people, Wilder had undertaken a two-month "back roads" tour of the state, visiting many rural areas and becoming known to a wide variety of citizens. He became "an unlikely folk hero among white, rural Virginians", in a state that was only 19% black.

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 closeness of the margin prompted a recount, which certified Wilder's victory. 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 African-American elected governor in the nation, the NAACP 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, especially as Wilder had been open about his pro-choice position. Some observers believed the close election was due to what was called the "Bradley effect"; they suggested that white voters were more likely to tell pollsters that they would support a non-white candidate than to actually vote for them.

During his tenure as governor, Wilder worked on crime and gun control initiatives. He also worked to fund Virginia's transportation initiatives, effectively lobbying Congress to reallocate highway monies to those states with the greatest needs. Much development had taken place in Northern Virginia without the state 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 then policy of apartheid, making Virginia the first southern state to take such action.

During his term, Wilder carried out Virginia's law on capital punishment: 14 executions by the electric chair, including the controversial case of Roger Keith Coleman.

Wilder left office in 1994 because of Virginia's prohibition of successive gubernatorial terms. The next governor elected was Republican George Allen.


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 Statesmarker vin 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.

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 is 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 is co-chaired by Bostonmarker Mayor Thomas Menino and New York Citymarker Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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

Post-political career

Wilder has continued as an adjunct professor in public policy at Virginia Commonwealth Universitymarker. He has helped establish the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg. He writes occasional editorials for Virginia papers, and is still considered to be very influential and widely admired in Virginia politics.

Honors and awards


  1. The first African American governor in the U.S. state was P. B. S. Pinchback, who was not elected, but became Governor of Louisiana on December 9, 1872 upon the removal of his predecessor from office. Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts, is the second African American to be elected governor, and became the third African American governor overall.
  2. Virginia Historical Society, [1]
  3. "Then & Now: Douglas Wilder", CNN, June 19, 2005; accessed 4 Mar 2009

Further reading

  • Dwayne Yancey, When Hell Froze Over (1988, updated 1990)
  • Don Baker, Wilder: Hold Fast to Dreams (1989)
  • Margaret Edds, Claiming the Dream (1990)

External links

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