A Tribute to L. Douglas Wilder: The First Black Governor in U.S. History

A Tribute to L. Douglas Wilder: The First Black Governor in U.S. History

L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia and the first African American to be elected as a state governor in the U.S., was honored with a black-tie gala and a documentary premiere this month. The events celebrated his remarkable achievements and his dedication to education and public service.

A Scholarship Fund to Support Future Leaders

The gala, held on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at the Washington Hilton, was a collaboration between Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Virginia Union University (VUU), and Howard University, the three institutions that Wilder attended or taught at. The gala also served as a fundraiser for a scholarship fund that will benefit students of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, who aspire to make a significant impact in public service.

The scholarship fund is intended for VCU students enrolled in the Wilder School as undergraduates, or graduates of VCU, VUU, and Howard who go on to graduate studies at the Wilder School. As of last week, VCU had raised more than $875,000 for the fund, and expects more once the final tallies from the gala are added up.

Education has always been one of Wilder’s passions, as he remembers that others paid for his education when he was a student. He graduated from VUU in 1951, served in the Korean War, and then earned his law degree from Howard in 1959. He later taught at VCU after leaving office.

A Tribute to L. Douglas Wilder: The First Black Governor in U.S. History

A Documentary Premiere on His 93rd Birthday

The documentary premiere, held on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, at the Claude G. Perkins Living and Learning Center at VUU, was a special event to mark Wilder’s 93rd birthday. The documentary, produced by VCU, provides an intimate insight into Wilder’s personal and political journey, revealing the moments and experiences that forged the man behind the legend.

The documentary, which is free and open to the public, allows viewers to connect with the human story behind his historic public service. The documentary features interviews with Wilder, his family, friends, colleagues, and political rivals, as well as archival footage and photos.

A Legacy of Leadership and Service

Wilder’s story is one of unprecedented achievement and inspiring leadership. He began his political career in 1969, when he became the first African American elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. He served as a state senator for 16 years, then as lieutenant governor for four years, before making history in 1989, when he won the gubernatorial race by a narrow margin of 6,741 votes.

As governor, Wilder balanced the state budget, created a rainy day fund, expanded access to health care and education, and championed civil rights and environmental issues. He also made national headlines when he ordered a review of the death penalty case of Roger Keith Coleman, a convicted murderer who claimed innocence. Wilder granted Coleman a stay of execution, but did not commute his sentence after DNA tests confirmed his guilt.

After leaving office in 1994, Wilder remained active in public life. He served as mayor of Richmond from 2005 to 2009, and as a distinguished professor at VCU. He also founded the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is still under construction.

Wilder has received numerous awards and honors for his service, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and the Thurgood Marshall Award. He has also been inducted into the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, and the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame.

The events this month are a tribute to a leader whose life’s work has been instrumental in shaping our society and advancing the cause of justice and equality.

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