In 1970, just before a psychologist named Florence Farley was urged to become a politician, Virginia had one of the South's worst records in electing black officials. There were only 36 elected black officials in the entire state. There were no black mayors. Only four of the state's 498 county board members were black. There was not a single Virginia city or town council in which blacks possessed substantive political power. One year earlier, in 1969, a black man named Lawrence D. Wilder had been elected to the state Senate, the first black to be elected to that body since Reconstruction. There were a few other blacks in elective office.
In the 15 years since -- while blacks such as Chicago's Harold Washington, Atlanta's Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson enjoyed national headlines -- Virginia blacks have quietly made impressive political gains.
"The door that has been opened will stay ajar and never close," says Wilder, now a candidate for lieutenant governor.
"They can't treat us like invisible people anymore," Farley said. In October, she became mayor of Petersburg. She is the first black woman in the state to hold the title of mayor, according to researchers at the Joint Center for Political Studies. This is an elected official who as a child stole drinks and then ran from the "whites only" water fountains in her home town of Roanoke, treating segregation like a harmless game.
Between 1970 and the most recent elections, according to the Joint Center, black mayors have also been elected in Fredericksburg, Clifton Forge, Danville, Roanoke, Richmond, Portsmouth and South Boston. Black vice-mayors have served in Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Roanoke, Chatham, Norfolk, South Boston, Hampton, Lynchburg and Richmond. Blacks have also gained a majority of the council seats in Richmond and Portsmouth. Blacks have gained a majority on county boards in Surry, Charles City and Greensville.
Experts point to several factors to explain the growing number of elected blacks at the county and municipal levels. One, according to Jack Bass, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is the "coming of age" effect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which eliminated state requirements such as the poll tax and literacy tests. Another is the expansion of Virginia's black middle class, which has resulted in a growing pool of professional people running for office. A third is the success of registration drives and voter education. But it is perhaps the final factor -- the willingness of an admittedly small, but slowly growing number of whites not to be alienated by black politicians -- that has helped the most.
Black candidates are having "some success in areas where they need white votes," said Thomas Cavanaugh of the Joint Center.
In Petersburg, for example, the seven city council members elect their mayor and vice-mayor. Three black council members supported Wilson Cheeley, a white council member, for mayor in exchange for Cheeley's support of Farley for vice- mayor. Farley then became mayor when Cheeley resigned last October.
In Portsmouth, where blacks make up roughly 48 percent of the city's population, voters last year elected their first black mayor. White voters helped seal City Councilman James. W. Holley III's victory over former mayor Jack Barnes because Holley fared better among white voters than did Barnes among blacks.
Despite these gains, even the most optimistic observers see no possibility for black electoral success at the regional or statewide level. The same experts label Wilder's attempt to win Virginia's lieutenant governorship a "valiant but futile effort."
Steven Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, views Wilder's effort in a pattern one sees over time in the South in which a black who has served for a long time makes a venture into an area where he has to get white and black votes and loses. "Except for elective positions on state supreme courts, no black has ever been elected statewide in the South," Suitts said.
Two cases of black politicians who attempted to win statewide offices -- Howard Lee and Oscar Adams -- illustrate the pervasiveness of racial polarization in the South.
Howard Lee, the black mayor of Chapel Hill, N.C., ran for lieutenant governor in 1976, calling himself a black candidate who would work equally hard for whites and blacks. Oscar Adams, on the other hand, never bought a single campaign poster, billboard or newspaper ad showing he was black when he ran for a seat on the Alabama State Supreme Court.
Lee made it into a runoff against James C. Green, but lost by 57 to 43 percent because his support among white voters was not strong enough. Adams, who ran a "faceless campaign," won.
Virginia blacks will continue to make inroads into local political power, but the L. Douglas Wilders of the South will still fall prey to the paradox of black political leadership in America. They, like the Andrew Youngs and Julian Bonds, may be able to build a following nationally more easily than they build one in their own states.