Lt. Gov.-elect L. Douglas Wilder sat in an office at the State Capitol today, one day after his historic election, and recalled his father's stories about slavery.
He "would bite down on his pipe whenever I asked him about it. He was very reticent about it," he said.
But when Wilder or one of his nine brothers and sisters would beg to hear the stories, Robert J. Wilder would talk about how his parents, and even his older siblings, grew up as slaves in Richmond.
A favorite of the children's, Wilder said, was how after their grandmother Agnes and three of her children "were sold to someone from Hanover County, my grandfather, James, would walk up there on weekends to see her. Sometimes he'd be AWOL in returning, and the overseer -- who knew he wasn't going to run away because of his family -- would beat on the saddle, and grandfather would yell, so they'd think he was getting his beating."
L. Douglas Wilder, the first black elected to statewide office in the South since Reconstruction, tells that story in the same low-key, restrained manner that was the hallmark of his campaign style.
The 54-year-old Richmond lawyer and legislator appears to be neither bitter about the past nor boastful of the future.
But ask him whether his campaign might be a blueprint for other would-be black officeholders in the South, and one of the things he mentions as a key to his success is: "Speak for more than just a narrow constituency."
While Wilder insists that his record is that of a moderate, even a conservative on fiscal matters, he doesn't shy away from pointing out his support of issues important to blacks. On equal housing, food stamps, redistricting, sickle cell anemia clinics and black colleges, "I was there." He doesn't dwell on it because "if you've got to show it, you ain't got it," he said, exhibiting a rare use of street vernacular.
In his early days in the Virginia Senate, "I could have pandered to constituents who wanted me to put in a bill to impeach [conservative state Sen.] Ed Willey and been a hero in the black community."
Likewise, the pragmatic Wilder said that last year he could have jumped on the presidential bandwagon and "blown Jesse Jackson's horn, but I knew his candidacy wasn't going to do it. He wasn't going to be nominated."
While Wilder says he resisted the temptation to "restrict my sphere of influence to color," in his 15-year legislative career, he admits it took a long time for him to build a political resume.
As a legislator, Wilder said he "never tried to build a record to run for statewide office, but -- I don't mean to be esoteric -- as Emerson said, 'Events are in the saddle and they ride mankind.' "
Wilder, who captured 44 percent of the white vote in Tuesday's election compared with Gov. Charles S. Robb's 46 percent tally four years ago, pointed today to remarks by former governor Mills E. Godwin during the campaign as examples of how racial attacks can backfire.
"That Carry-Me-Back stuff was meant to conjure up tremendous visions" of radical behavior, Wilder said, referring to Godwin's apocalyptic warning that "he [Wilder] even tried to repeal our beloved state song" because it contained what Wilder perceived to be racial slurs. Godwin's attack on Wilder's support of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday also backfired, Wilder said he believes.
"They [Godwin and his allies] said everything they stood for I voted against. It was incredible, and impossible to document. They must have been talking about style and personality, not substance and record."
He said the key to his victory was a two-month tour in a borrowed station wagon, during which he visited every county of the state, a move derided early on by campaign officials as a waste of valuable campaign time.
Noting that he carried seven of the state's 10 congressional districts, including the overwhelmingly white, rural southwestern 9th District, Wilder said he plans to go back to the southwest this month.
"I thought I could win even before I went there, but I felt even more so when I returned." He said he "never had a history of being offensive" but he wanted people to get to know him so they would "know I was not just trash" and could "reject negative themes" that he expected his opponent would employ.
Wilder said he believes he ran behind his running mates, Gov.-elect Gerald L. Baliles, who won by 10 percentage points, and Attorney General-elect Mary Sue Terry, who won by 22, because he entered the campaign later, and spent considerably less money than they did, and not because of racial factors. Wilder won by 4 percentage points.
A post-election analysis by Election Data Services Inc. of Washington found Wilder's support was fairly even across the state, although he did slightly better in areas with substantial black populations.
The EDS study divided the state into three sections, based on the percentage of black population. It found that in the 48 counties with less than 10 percent black population, the turnout of registered voters was 49.8 percent, and that Wilder's percentage of the vote was 50.8; in the 41 counties with 10 to 30 percent black population, the turnout was 53.6 percent and Wilder's share was 49.6 percent; in the 46 counties with more than 30 percent black population, the turnout was 57 percent, and Wilder captured 52 percent of the vote.
Wilder said he talked today with his opponent, state Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford County, and pledged to "work with him" in the state Senate over which Wilder will preside beginning in January.
The turning point in the campaign, Wilder said, was a breakfast last month in Martinsville, hosted by House Speaker A.L. Philpott. He said the conservative Philpott pledged to support him that day "and never wavered."
Wilder said he has no plans to run for governor in four years, or become a national figure. "I'm still concentrating on getting sworn in as lieutenant governor," he said. But asked whether he would return calls from networks, he grinned and said, "I'm not shy."
He credits Robb for "cutting a swath of cloth that hasn't been seen" before. "And don't pooh-pooh that talk of a New Dominion," he said. "Some people may get the wrong impression -- that Virginia has gone liberal, bananas, crazy -- but [the change] is real."
If people insist on making him a symbol, he said, he hopes that what they'll see in his victory is that "you can't give up, you can't believe that your origin, your birth status must be a detraction; that young people will see the value of staying in school, of directing their life away from the wastefulness of crime.
"I'm not suggesting that I'm a role model, but if there is any side benefit [to his victory], it is to show that just because you are black doesn't mean you can't rise, notwithstanding obstacles placed in your path."
His father, the youngest of 14 children of slaves James and Agnes Wilder, who died in 1968 at the age of 80, believed in the system, too, Wilder noted.
"He paid his poll taxes, and never told anyone how he voted. But he was a Republican until FDR; revered the name of Lincoln."
Wilder doesn't know the name of the slave master of his grandparents and his father's older brothers and sisters, but one of his sisters in Detroit knows a woman who can help them trace their roots.
"I've been too busy for that," he said. "But my daughter wants to know." Then, after a pause, he added, "Yes, I want to know, too."