Publish date:
Year
1990
Month Day
January 13

Douglas Wilder of Virginia becomes the nation's first African American governor

Douglas Wilder, the first African American to be elected governor of an American state, takes office as Governor of Virginia on January 13, 1990. Wilder broke a number of color barriers in Virginia politics and remains an enduring and controversial figure in the state's political scene.

Born in 1931 in Church Hill, a poor and segregated neighborhood of Richmond, Wilder is the grandson of slaves and is named for Frederick Douglass. He grew up in the Jim Crow era, graduating from Richmond's Virginia Union University in 1951. Wilder fought in the Korean War, earning the Bronze Star, before studying law at Howard University and returning to Richmond to practice.

Wilder entered politics by way of a special election to the State Senate in 1969, becoming the state's first African American state senator since Reconstruction. A Democrat, he developed a reputation for taking on other members of his party. In 1982, he threatened to run for Senate as an independent after the presumptive Democratic nominee gave a speech praising the Byrd Organization, the powerful and formerly pro-segregation political machine that had long dominated the Virginia Democratic Party. In 1986, Wilder became the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia when he was elected Lieutenant Governor. Four years later, in an extremely narrow race that triggered an automatic recount, he was elected Governor.

Some political scientists have speculated that the race was unexpectedly close due to the "Bradley Effect," the effect on polls of racist voters lying about their willingness to vote for non-white candidates. Though Republicans had painted him as a liberal due to his pro-choice stance on abortion, Wilder governed as a "tough on crime" centrist. Bills aimed at reducing crime and gun violence, as well as infrastructure spending in the rapidly expanding suburbs of Northern Virginia, were hallmarks of his tenure. Wilder also divested all state institutions from the apartheid government of South Africa, making it the first Southern state to do so.

Virginia law prohibits governors from running for re-election, but Wilder remained active in state politics. In the 2000s, he was one of the leaders of a movement to directly elect the Mayor of Richmond—at the time, the City Council chose one of its members to serve as mayor. In 2003, an overwhelming majority of Richmonders approved the direct-election measure, and Wilder was elected mayor the following year with 79 percent of the vote. Wilder supported then-Senator Barack Obama's first run for president, although he declined to endorse him in 2012. Since leaving office in 2008, Wilder has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University's school of public affairs, which is named for him, and has worked to establish museums and memorials in remembrance of slavery.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Sole British soldier escapes Kabul

On January 13, 1842, a British army doctor reaches the British sentry post at Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the lone survivor of a 16,000-strong Anglo-Indian expeditionary force that was massacred in its retreat from Kabul. He told of a terrible massacre in the Khyber Pass, in which ...read more

James Joyce dies

James Joyce, widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest author, dies in Zurich, Switzerland, at the age of 58. One of the most brilliant and daring writers of the 20th century, Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is ranked among the greatest works in the English language. Born in Dublin in ...read more

Pope recognizes Knights Templar

On this day in 1128, Pope Honorius II grants a papal sanction to the military order known as the Knights Templar, declaring it to be an army of God. Led by the Frenchman Hughes de Payens, the Knights Templar organization was founded in 1118. Its self-imposed mission was to ...read more

Michael Jordan retires for a second time

On January 13, 1999, the National Basketball Association (NBA) superstar Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls announces his retirement from professional basketball, for the second time, in front of a crowd at Chicago’s United Center. Jordan had an outstanding college career, but ...read more

Wyatt Earp dies in Los Angeles

Nearly 50 years after the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp dies quietly in Los Angeles at the age of 80. The Earp brothers had long been competing with the Clanton-McClaury ranching families for political and economic control of Tombstone, Arizona, and the ...read more

The Manuel Massacres

Peter Manuel is arrested in Glasgow, Scotland, after a series of attacks over two years that left between seven and 15 people dead. Manuel, born in America to British parents, established himself as a career criminal early in life. He received his first burglary conviction at age ...read more

Napoleon Bonaparte Buford is born

On this day in 1807, Union General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford is born in Woodford, Kentucky. Buford held many commands in the West and was a hero at the Battle of Belmont, Missouri,early in the war. Buford attended West Point and graduated in 1827. After a stint with the frontier ...read more

Comedian killed in Corvair crash

On this day in 1962, Ernie Kovacs, a comedian who hosted his own television shows during the 1950s and is said to have influenced such TV hosts as Johnny Carson and David Letterman, dies at the age of 42 after crashing his Chevrolet Corvair into a telephone pole in Los Angeles, ...read more