The present, and seemingly fluid, list of possible candidates for the office of mayor includes at least two African-American women who've announced their interest ahead of everyone else: City Council president Michelle Mosby and community strategist Lillie A. Estes.
From the perspective of 2016, their potential runs don’t seem unusual, but this is a fairly recent development in the annals of the city’s political history. Slightly more than a generation ago, a black city council member was one thing, but a woman, and a black woman, too? That was quite another.
During the latter decades of the 19th century, blacks served on what was then called the Common Council; the last was Henry J. Moore of 1892-1898. The Jim Crow era prevented black political participation. Civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill was the first to win a seat in the 20th century. He won his 1948 election, though, two years later, Hill lost by 44 votes.
Twenty five years later, Williie J. Dell became the first African-American woman seated on council.
Dell waded into the political fray when white liberal minister James G. Carpenter of All Souls Presbyterian Church resigned to pursue mission work in Ecuador. Dell and her pastor husband, Nathan, were congregants of All Souls.
Willie Dell taught as an assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work. She was concerned by the attempts of the local welfare department to abolish its general relief program. From her field experience she knew the extent of adverse consequences of such abrupt cuts. She tried to speak with City Council about addressing the issue but, for the most part, received polite hearing and no response. The only way to get traction was to be inside the decision-making.
Dell came along at an important turning point in Richmond politics. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the intent behind the city’s 1970 annexation of 23-square miles of Chesterfield County was racially motivated: The city sought to dilute the black vote. By court order, Richmond underwent an overhaul of its ballot box process to create new districts and that meant a freeze on council elections.
Dell made clear that she’d campaign for the seat when time came, but, an appointment to Dell’s recently vacated seat would put her on a faster track. She received eventual support for appointment in 1973.
Longtime Richmond political observer and policy historian John Moeser recalls that Dell came into Richmond as something of an outsider. She was originally from North Carolina. She didn’t have connections in the black middle class political community. She allowed her hair to grow into an Afro. She wore African-influenced garments. “For the black middle class that pretty much ran the Crusade for Voters, she was viewed as uncontrollable. She spoke her mind. She let’er rip.” Dell’s style rubbed against the Richmond sense of decorum, whether of the black or white political persuasion. Black politicians tended toward the lobby-office professions of lawyer and doctor. A street savvy social worker, who didn’t come out of the customary sororities and organizations, wasn’t the norm.
But in the spring of 1977, when Richmond’s voting situation received an all-clear, voters elected a City Council with a majority of five black members, Dell among them.
That inaugural class included vice-mayor and civil rights attorney Henry Marsh III, soon thereafter appointed mayor – the first African American mayor in Richmond’s history. His colleagues included postal workers’ union official Walter T. Kenney in the 6th District (later mayor), social worker Claudette Black McDaniel in the 8th District, and a Vietnam War veteran Henry W. “Chuck” Richardson in the 5th District.
In 1982, Roy A. West, a middle school principal whom few in the black community knew and none in the white, ran against Dell. Then-state senator L. Douglas Wilder moderated a Ginter Park forum between West and Dell. According to accounts at the time, Wilder gave West soft ball questions then turned on Dell about accountability and access to constituents. West defeated Dell, then became mayor by the votes of four white members – and himself.
Dell’s 1984 attempt to regain the seat failed. She received little support from the black establishment.
She went on to become a strong advocate for the city’s elderly as executive director of the Richmond Community Senior Center, but also began decades-long mission work in Haiti, where she still often travels.