Born and raised in the mostly black small town of Taft, Okla., she was a 30-year-old single mother of five. And she had just been laid off from a teacher’s aide job because of budget cuts. She was collecting unemployment benefits to pay the bills.
In 1973, she wanted to run for a seat on the school board, but right before filing the paperwork, she was talked out of it by people “who thought I wasn’t qualified,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. But then she read about a black man who had just become mayor of Prichard, Ala., and decided to set her sights a little higher.
“I believed in God, and I believed in myself,” she said. “I saw the need in the community for leadership, so I decided to pitch my hat.”
With $200 from friends, she got her mayoral campaign underway, going door to door in the town of 500 and introducing herself in churches. According to a 1973 Jet magazine profile, detractors “questioned the fact that all five of her children were born before she was married.” Some also questioned whether she could be mayor with only a high school education.
“Some accepted you and saw what I could do, and then there were others who wanted to remind you you were just a welfare mother,” she said. “But that didn’t stop me.”
Despite the resistance, in April 1973, she won — with 93 votes — beating the incumbent. At the time, she had no idea that this made her the first black woman to be elected mayor anywhere in the United States. (Doris A. Davis, the first black woman to be elected mayor in Compton, Calif., won election two months later.) The Joint Center for Political Studies informed Foley-Davis of her place in history about a year later, she said.
At first, “it was rough,” she remembered. Back then, the salary was only about $200 a year.
She told the New York Times that September that “working to get the city straightened out has taken all my time, so I’ve been continuing to draw my unemployment.”
Eventually, Foley-Davis got full-time work as a law librarian at the county courthouse. And she got down to business helping her constituents with affordable housing.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford named her one of “Ten Outstanding Young Women” and invited her to the White House.
“The president’s dog, a golden retriever, was running around the White House and everyone was petting the dog,” Foley-Davis told the Northeastern in 2018. “I looked at the president and said, ‘I did not come here to play with a dog, I came here to talk to you about housing for my community.’”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development built affordable homes in Taft not long afterward, she said. It was one of her most significant achievements.
She’s also proud to have met Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. She’s prouder still of staying in her community to make it better. On one of her trips to Washington in the 1970s, she says, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) offered her a staff position, “but I said, ‘No, I’ve got to go back to Taft.’”
But it has been a struggle, she said. She fought unsuccessfully to keep schools in the small town, and the population has dwindled to about 200 people. She’s irked by the presence of two correctional facilities and no schools.
Foley-Davis lost her seat as mayor in 1989 but was elected again 10 years later. She retired in 2015, but she still has a seat on the town council and wants to push for a charter school in Taft. Now 77, she hopes her memorabilia from her historic mayoral run can be put in a museum someday.
As for Lightfoot, she wished her luck: “It’s a challenge for anyone in politics, but it’s a challenge twice for black women."
She urged the women “to just be truthful to themselves and be faithful to the people that they serve. You know, your word is your bond.”
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