Yvonne B. Miller, who shattered racial and gender barriers simultaneously as the first African American woman elected to Virginia’s legislature, died July 3, one day shy of her 78th birthday. She had stomach cancer.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Don McEachin said Sen. Miller died at her home in Norfolk. She was a career educator and an outspoken advocate for Virginia’s poor and minorities in the General Assembly.
Sen. Miller broke the combined gender and color barrier in 1983, when she was the first black woman to win a seat in the House of Delegates, the oldest continuously meeting legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
Four years later, she did the same by winning a seat in the state Senate.
Sen. Miller ascended from obscurity, when neither women nor minorities had a voice in the legislature, to win a seat on the budget-writing Finance Committee and become chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Her illness had taken a noticeable toll in the past year, forcing Sen. Miller to take extended absences during the 2011 and 2012 sessions.
Sen. Miller’s death provoked bipartisan expressions of loss and sympathy across Virginia government. U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D), the first elected black member of Congress from Virginia, called Sen. Miller “a stalwart champion of civil rights” who “paved the way for others to follow not only with her words but with her actions.”
“Yvonne Miller cared deeply about people,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said, “and she was a strong voice always ready to passionately advocate for the disadvantaged, the forgotten and the overlooked.”
Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, praised Sen. Miller as “a trailblazer and a role model and an adviser.”
Yvonne Bond Miller was born July 4, 1934, in Edenton, N.C., one of 13 siblings, Locke said.
Sen. Miller graduated in 1956 from Norfolk State University, where she later became a professor of childhood education. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1962 and a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973.
Her marriage to Wilbert Roy Jr. ended in divorce.
Her first teaching job in Norfolk city schools in the late 1950s subjected her to the painful lessons of “massive resistance,” the state’s institutionalized defiance of the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate the nation’s public schools.
That bitter experience forged her outlook and imbued her floor speeches in the legislature with an authentic anger that commanded the silent attention of her 39 fellow senators.
In February, Sen. Miller denounced a Republican-backed bill requiring voters to bring identification documents to polling places beginning this fall. Opponents of the bill, particularly Locke and Sen. Miller, likened the measure to Jim Crow voter-suppression tactics just ahead of a presidential election in the swing state.