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Wes Moore sworn in, making history as Md.’s first Black governor

In an emotional day laced with references to Maryland’s racist history, Moore ascends to be America’s lone Black state governor

Wes Moore was sworn in as Maryland’s first Black governor on Jan. 18 in Annapolis. Moore's son read the Pledge of Allegiance. (Video: Maryland Public Television)

With his hand on a Bible once owned by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Wes Moore was sworn in Wednesday to become Maryland’s first Black governor and only the third elected in U.S. history.

Moore, an author, combat veteran and former chief of a poverty-fighting nonprofit, took the oath of office at the State House in Annapolis, just blocks away from a dock where Africans, forced into the slave trade, arrived in America to be sold.

Moore was introduced by Oprah Winfrey — who appeared to wipe tears from her eyes after the 19-gun salute that followed Moore’s swearing in — to a crowd of roughly 5,000 people gathered in front of a building historians say was built with enslaved labor.

In his inaugural address, Moore promised to address long-standing inequities in the state while growing the economy, blunting climate change and shrinking violent crime. He called to end the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you for the honor you have bestowed upon me,” Moore, 45, said. “We are blocks away from the Annapolis docks, where so many enslaved people arrived in this country against their will,” Moore said. “And we are standing in front of a capitol building built by their hands. We have made uneven and unimaginable progress since then.”

Thousands of Marylanders, politicians and celebrities attended Wes Moore's inauguration on Jan. 18. Moore was sworn in as the state's first Black governor. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Moore, whose charisma helped catapult him above a well-known Democratic field, has already been mentioned as a future presidential candidate. His star power was on display as he shared the inaugural stage with celebrities such as former first daughter Chelsea Clinton. Seated at the front of the crowd were rapper Ice Cube, comedian Chris Tucker and writer and former Essence editor Susan L. Taylor.

“This might be his first day as an elected official,” said Winfrey, a close friend who promoted his work. “But Wes Moore has been a public servant his entire adult life. And there’s so much more to come. He’s just getting started.”

The new governor — Maryland’s 63rd and the only Black person leading a state today — quickly pivoted to what he hopes to accomplish while in power, saying: “Today is not an indictment of the past. Today is a celebration of our collective future. And today, our opportunity to begin this future is so bright, it is blinding.”

He called it “unacceptable” that Maryland is one of the country’s richest states, but that 1 in 8 children live in poverty; that the state has world-renowned medical facilities and a quarter million residents without health care; and that Maryland’s unemployment rate ranks 43rd in the nation and the country’s racial wealth gap leaves median White families with eight times the wealth of Black ones.

He promised to boost both the minimum wage and the business climate, saying it is a “false choice” to pick between what’s best for business owners and workers. He pledged to address violent crime and rebuild police forces, as well as “change the inexcusable fact that Maryland incarcerates more Black boys than any other state.”

“We do not have to choose between a safe state and a just state. Maryland can, and will, be both,” he said. Moore reminded the crowd that he too knows what it feels like to be handcuffed by police. He was 11 at the time, caught spraying graffiti. A man shouted out “me too,” drawing widespread laughs and Moore’s reply: “We’re not alone.

The new governor promised a better education system for every child, a paid year of service opportunity for every high school graduate and an economy defined by clean energy.

“I’m asking you to believe that Maryland can be different,” he said. “I’m asking you to believe that Maryland can be bold. And I’m asking you to believe that in this moment.”

In assuming the office, Moore returns control of the governor’s mansion to Democrats after eight years of Republican rule. Term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan (R) attended the inauguration, and Moore thanked him for a smooth and kind transition.

Moore deviated from the speech printed in the program to directly address those skeptical he could deliver on systemic changes, particularly at a time of rancorous political division, and cast himself as a consensus builder: “I say we must govern on big principles and not on petty differences. That we must govern in a way that addresses the needs of all of our families and not worrying about what the political or the political ideology asks us.”

The moment was “a very long time coming,” said master of ceremonies Steuart Pittman (D), Anne Arundel County executive and an early campaign supporter, who on Wednesday noted that he descends from a tobacco plantation owner in the county who “made fortune on the backs of enslaved men, women and children from Africa.”

A diverse but predominantly Black and Brown crowd, many in their Sunday best or wearing their fraternity and sorority colors, filled the rows of white folding chairs that lined Baden Street and watched the historic event on four large screens. An overflow crowd stood on the sidewalk craning for a glimpse.

The inauguration ceremony, held in uncommonly warm 54-degree January weather, was a family affair. Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller’s daughters shared that she once took stand-up comedy classes to overcome her fear of public speaking. Moore’s son led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, then executed a complicated handshake with his dad.

Alongside several other barrier-breaking Black leaders, Moore began the day with an emotional wreath-laying ceremony at the Annapolis waterfront that was once a slave port.

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“We stand here today in triumph — triumph not because we have ended the cause of white supremacy in our country or state, and not because the effects of chattel slavery, Jim Crow and the dehumanization of Black people are not still with us,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“We stand here in triumph because the journey from Kunta Kinte to Frederick Douglass was just the beginning of a long line of extraordinary Marylanders who improbably worked to overcome the shackles placed upon them to become great leaders, not only of the state, but of this country and even the world,” she said.

Moore and his family listened to a recounting of Black leaders from Maryland who helped shape democracy in this country, from Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall to the state’s more recent Black leaders. Ifill recounted small pieces of the state’s grisly racist past, naming the Black men lynched within the city limits by White mobs.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume’s voice cracked with emotion after the ceremony.

“Wes really is an extension of a long line that’s connected,” said Mfume (D-Md.). “I hope and pray that none of us ever lose sight of the fact that those nameless and faceless people who suffered, endured and survived two centuries of slavery, oppression, degradation … I felt that connection there. I don’t want to say it’s spiritual, but it got to me.”

Moore sailed to victory in November with nearly 2 out of 3 voters casting their ballots for him in a contest against Republican Dan Cox, then a state delegate who was endorsed by former president Donald Trump.

The son of a Jamaican immigrant, Moore promised to “leave no one behind,” a message that resonated with Maryland’s increasingly diverse population, which in the past decade has transformed the state into one of the most diverse in the country.

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Top posts within the state are also filled with firsts. Moore’s lieutenant governor, Miller, is the first woman of color and first immigrant to serve in the No. 2 position; Anthony G. Brown was sworn in as the state’s first Black attorney general earlier this month; and Brooke Lierman became the first woman to serve as comptroller. Leaders have promised that diverse fleet of leaders will see the struggles of Maryland residents who may have been overlooked in the past.

“Too many people have been left behind,” Miller said in an inauguration speech that detailed struggles she faced trying to assimilate when she arrived to America as a 7-year-old from India. “Gov. Moore and I see you. We hear you. We will fight for you.”

Ashok Patibandla, a 47-year-old from Howard County, brought one of his daughters to witness the history-making moment. “I have two girls and I want to show them it can happen here to an immigrant,” he said.

The administration’s sweeping agenda includes tackling the racial wealth gap, childhood poverty and climate change. For his first year, Moore has promised to start tackling childhood poverty. He also wants to replenish a state workforce which has more than 13 percent of jobs vacant, and accelerate a minimum wage hike so that it reaches $15 an hour this year.

As he walked to the governor’s mansion from the wreath laying ceremony, a woman shouted “Go Wes Moore. We love you, governor!”

“I love you back,” Moore responded.

Moments later, a street musician began singing the soulful civil rights ballad “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Moore’s wife, Dawn Flythe Moore, began to cry.

The soon-to-be first family stopped and embraced each other, son James and daughter Mia also wiping tears, before marching up the hill to the historic Maryland State House.

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In the crowd, a Black couple from Tacoma, Wash., came to Maryland to watch Moore make history. The trip, which included the inaugural ball in Baltimore, was a surprise birthday gift for Constance Lassiter, 87, from her husband, Charles, 88.

“It’s a grand occurrence to testify to how our country is moving,” Constance Lassiter said. “Regardless of the things that seem to divide us there is a parallel force that pulls us together and this occurrence confirms that. We’re all Americans. We have deep roots. And we love this country.”

Joe Heim contributed to this report.