So far our Black History Month blogs have profiled civic leader and entrepreneur Maggie L. Walker, slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, and Civil War spy Mary Elizabeth Bowser. For the conclusion of our Black History Month series, we look at two very different Black Virginians who have made tremendous impacts, both in our state and beyond.
Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1931. He graduated from Virginia Union University in 1951 with a degree in chemistry. He was then drafted and served with distinction in the Korean War, earning the Bronze Star Medal.
After the war, Wilder attended Howard University Law School and established a law practice in Richmond in 1959. In 1969 he decided to enter politics and ran for a seat in the state senate. He was the first African American to be elected to the Virginia Senate, and he held his seat there for 16 years. He was outspoken on issues of civil rights, but was politically moderate and earned a reputation for compromise among his fellow senators.
In 1985, he ran for Lieutenant Governor and became the first African American to hold a statewide office. Following his term as Lieutenant Governor, Wilder ran for Governor in 1989. He won the election by a narrow margin and became the first elected black governor in the United States. He served from 1990 to 1994 and is known for his work on crime, gun control, and transportation initiatives.
After leaving office, Wilder taught political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, returned to practicing law, and briefly hosted a radio show.
In 2004, Wilder ran for Mayor of Richmond, Virginia. With 79% of the vote, he became the first directly elected mayor of Richmond. Prior to 2004, mayors were chosen by the city council. While in office he focused on gun control and corruption, among other initiatives. In 2008, he announced he would not be seeking another term as mayor.
Since stepping down as mayor, Wilder has remained active in Virginia public life. He still teaches as an adjunct at VCU and is working with the school to establish a long-delayed slavery museum in Richmond. In October 2015 at age 84, he published an autobiography.
Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas was born in 1995 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She began training as a gymnast at the age of 6 and won her first state championship just two years later.
Douglas competed in her first national competition in 2008 in the junior women’s division. She suffered a setback due to injury and was mostly unable to compete during the 2009 season. In 2010 she was back in action and placed well at a number of national competitions. Also in 2010, she left home to train with coach Liang Chow in Des Moines, Iowa. Her family stayed behind in Virginia Beach and she stayed with a local family who also had a child training at Chow’s gym.
Starting in 2011, Douglas moved up to senior women’s competition. In 2012 she placed first in the all-around competition, securing a spot on the women’s Olympic gymnastics team. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Douglas and her teammates won the gold medal in the women’s team competition. She then competed in the individual all-around competition and became the first black woman to win the gold medal in that event.
Since 2012, Douglas has continued to train and will be making a bid for the 2016 Olympic team.
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