Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, the longest-serving woman in the Virginia Senate, died Tuesday, according to Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar.
Miller, who would have turned 78 on Wednesday, had battled stomach cancer in the past year and missed several weeks of the 2011 legislative session.
A Democrat, Miller served in the House of Delegates from 1984 to 1987 before being elected to the state Senate, which had until recently been dominated by white men. She was the first African American woman to serve in each of the two houses, and the first woman to lead a Senate committee.
“Yvonne was a history-maker and a trail blazer,’’ Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said in a statement. “Yvonne made history when she was elected to the General Assembly. But she made the biggest difference in what she did once she got there.’’
Tributes began pouring in late Tuesday after legislators and staff were notified of her death.
Sen. Mamie E. Locke, (D-Hampton) chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said Miller was a powerful voice for the “underrepresented and underserved.”
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has lost a great Virginian, a great legislator and a great humanitarian,’’ Locke said. “That irreplaceable voice will be truly missed by all who knew and loved Yvonne B. Miller. She was and will forever remain a giant among women and a role model for us all.”
Miller chaired the Transportation Committee until this year, when Republicans took over the chamber.
“I have spent my entire Senate career serving with her, and it is hard to imagine a Senate of Virginia without Yvonne Miller,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City).
The Norfolk native received her undergraduate degree from a segregated school and began teaching in the segregated Norfolk Public Schools. She later taught at Norfolk State, eventually leading the Department of Early Childhood/Elementary Education, before retiring in 1999.
“She lived a full and complete life and witnessed the worst and best this country had to offer,’’ Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. “This woman had seen it all.”
Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) said in a statement that Miller was an advocate for reforming the way Virginia handles crime by introducing bills on after-school programs for at-risk youth and gang prevention, child-friendly visiting rooms in correctional facilities and restoration of voter rights for nonviolent felons.