Willie Dell, the city's first elected African-American councilwoman has spent much of the last 30 years since she left public office doing mission work in Haiti. (Photo courtesy of Willie Dell.)
Field Notes recently related the story of Willie J. Dell, the first African-American woman to be appointed (1973) and then elected to the Richmond City Council (1977-1982). She followed Eleanor Sheppard, the first woman council member in 1954, and Richmond's first female (appointed) mayor (1962-1964).
We caught up to Dell, who, at 84, keeps busy with church activities and, for the past 30 years, has undertaken mission work in Haiti. In a phone conversation, we sought perspective from her place in history as our current municipal election campaigns begin.
For her latter day political inheritors she advises: Know the basic operations of the city before you start the job and learn how to read a budget. Dell considered herself fortunate because the Washington D.C. -based Joint Center of Political and Economical Studies held instruction sessions for council newcomers. They were taught the basics of how city budget should be analyzed and the way to prepare and interpret fundamental financial data.
“I was blessed that that happened,” she says. “It comes down to this: It doesn’t matter about gender, race or political party. It’s about having the best information to make the wisest decisions for the city.”
Dell undertook her own education about Richmond. She visited the waste water treatment plant where its workings fascinated her. She went to every public school. At one point, to gain the ultimate perspective, Dell went up in an airplane to see the city from above.
But her outspoken nature irked some -- and not just in the white community. Dell came to Richmond as an outsider. She says that the often malignant nature of insults hurled at her during her campaigns and while on council weren’t the worst of her experience. “Richmond is cliquey and clannish -- even among the black folks. I didn’t go to Ebenezer [Baptist] or St. Philips [Episcopal] I wasn’t married to somebody in the right political family-- not with the Lamberts. I didn’t go to the right school. I’m just not one of them. It wasn’t my politics that they disagreed with me about as much as where I came from.”
Dell, never afraid to say what's on her mind, didn’t kowtow to anybody, including the accepted Brahmins of black power – up to then-state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder. She didn’t attend meetings he called. And by 1984, Dell found herself out of politics and into advocacy for the elderly.
Of the city's present state, she wishes Richmond hadn’t returned to the strong mayor form of government. “Well, I’ll just say that there’s not been [a mayor] in there that I would’ve supported. What’s the problem with them? You’re there. You’re in charge. Fix things. What’s stopping you? Well, I tell you, it takes more than a personality to get the real work done.”
The administration's failure to produce a timely comprehensive annual financial report profoundly disappoints her. “How do you manage? How do you govern? I don’t know how you do anything without knowing how much money you have to do it with. I don’t know how you can get up in the morning, put on your pants and walk into the office and say 'I’m in charge,’ when you don’t know from crap.”
There it is, Richmond. From one trailblazer of city politics to those who one day hope to be.