Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born January 17, 1931, in the segregated Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. His paternal grandparents had been enslaved in Goochland County. The seventh of eight children, Wilder was named for the African American writers Paul Laurence Dunbar and Frederick Douglass. His father, Robert, was an insurance salesman, and the younger Wilder recalled a childhood of “gentle poverty.” His mother, Beulah, encouraged his education by making him learn a new word every day from a crossword puzzle. His aunt, meanwhile, held formal teas where all the children were expected to perform. Wilder later said he learned at these events how to speak in front of crowds.
Wilder worked his way through Virginia Union University in Richmond by waiting tables at hotels where political events were common. Unlike other waiters, he stayed to listen to the speeches and formed an interest in politics. Wilder graduated in 1951 with a degree in chemistry. Drafted into the United States Army during the Korean War (1950–1953), he volunteered for combat duty to reduce his service time. At Pork Chop Hill, he and two other men found themselves cut off from their unit, but they bluffed nineteen Chinese soldiers into surrendering. For that feat, Wilder was awarded a Bronze Star and later promoted to sergeant.
After returning home, Wilder worked in the state medical examiner’s office and pursued a master’s degree in chemistry. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which outlawed segregation in public schools, inspired Wilder to change careers, however, and in 1956 he entered law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After graduating in 1959 he established a law practice in Richmond. He married Eunice Montgomery on October 11, 1958. The couple had three children but later divorced.
In 1969, Wilder ran for the Senate of Virginia and won a plurality of the vote in a three-way race against two white candidates. His victory made him the first African American in the Senate in the twentieth century. Wilder immediately made his mark as the state’s most prominent spokesman for black voters. In 1970, he attended a reception for legislators. When the state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” was played—complete with lyrics that spoke nostalgically of the antebellum South and slavery with references to “darkies”—Wilder walked out. The next day, he denounced the song in a floor speech. The song quickly fell out of fashion, and Wilder found he had a certain influence. “I didn’t have any following to get a bill passed,” he once told an interviewer. “So I made it a thing to be able to kill bills.” Over time, Wilder became an important conduit for white legislators seeking black support. Journalist Michael Isikoff described Wilder as “the undisputed kingpin of black politics in Virginia,” in a May 1, 1982, profile in the Washington Post. Democrats returned to the governor’s office with the 1981 election of Charles S. Robb after more than a decade away from it, and Wilder was frequently consulted by the new administration on appointments. In 1982, Wilder enhanced his power by publicly vetoing Robb’s preferred choice for a Senate candidate.
Campaign for Lieutenant Governor
In 1985, Wilder ran for lieutenant governor. Knowing he would not be embraced by the party’s white establishment, he declared his candidacy more than a year in advance. His early declaration succeeded. Although some party leaders worked behind the scenes to recruit an opponent, no one emerged to challenge him. The conventional wisdom was that anyone who opposed Wilder might win but would so offend the party’s African American political base that any victory would be hollow.
Gerald Baliles became the Democratic nominee for governor. He was joined by the most diverse ticket Virginia had seen—with Wilder for lieutenant governor and a white woman, Mary Sue Terry, for attorney general. Republicans felt confident enough of victory that they passed over a higher-profile candidate for lieutenant governor in favor of little-known state senator John Chichester.
Wilder made the most of the intense media interest in his historic campaign. He vowed to visit every county and city in the state, and started his statewide tour in the state’s westernmost corner, the Cumberland Gap. The media focused on the symbolism of a black candidate campaigning in the whitest part of the state, even though Southwest Virginia tended to be reliably Democratic. When Wilder was enthusiastically greeted by white farmers and coal miners who appreciated his attention to their often-overlooked region, his tour made statewide headlines, much to the dismay of Republicans who complained that it was simply a publicity stunt. Wilder’s high-profile but low-budget tour (he traveled by station wagon) also enabled him to husband his meager campaign treasury for television commercials later on. Although Chichester raised more money, Wilder matched his spending on television commercials, emphasizing his Korean War service and legislative experience.
The 1985 election was a Democratic sweep. Voters were generally happy with the outgoing Robb administration, and Democrats took all three statewide offices. The lieutenant governor’s race was the closest of the three. Wilder took 52 percent of the vote to Chichester’s 48 percent.
Campaign for Governor
Like most lieutenant governors in Virginia, Wilder made clear his intention to run for governor come election season. Democrats expected a bruising contest between Wilder and Terry, but she chose to avoid a fight and sought a second term as attorney general. By early in 1989, Wilder was the party’s consensus candidate, while Republicans endured a bitter three-way primary that was won by former attorney general Marshall Coleman.
The political landscape in 1989 played to the Democrats’ strengths. The outgoing Baliles administration was popular. Some in the business community mistrusted Coleman for changing positions on various issues over the years and saw Wilder as a more reliable figure. Abortion unexpectedly became the top issue in the campaign. Coleman had appealed to social conservatives in the Republican primary by campaigning against the procedure. Shortly after Coleman’s victory in the primary, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that granted states more power to regulate abortion. Wilder seized on the decision and fashioned a campaign designed to appeal to suburban women who otherwise might vote Republican. Television ads framed the issue as a question of personal liberty and equated Wilder’s views with those of Thomas Jefferson. The Coleman campaign, out of money after the primary, was caught off guard and was slow to respond. The issue kept Coleman on the defensive through much of the autumn.
The role that race played in the campaign is still a matter of debate. Republicans complained that the media did not focus enough on what they considered Wilder’s liberal legislative record. Instead, much of the coverage emphasized the historic possibility of a former Confederate state electing a black governor. Democrats countered that while Wilder undoubtedly was the focus of attention, publicity alone did not guarantee electoral success. Some final polls showed Wilder leading by as many as 10 percentage points, a margin that never materialized on election day—leading to speculation that some white voters simply lied to pollsters rather than admit they would not vote for a black candidate.
Wilder won, but his victory margin of 6,741 votes—50.2 percent to 49.8 percent—made it the closest governor’s race in Virginia in the twentieth century and prompted a recount. By contrast, Wilder’s two running mates won by much larger margins.
Wilder spent much of his governorship dealing with a national recession and prided himself on his budget cutting. His term was also marked by political controversies that often put him at odds with members of his own party. One of Wilder’s most controversial acts was to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency, which took him out of state for extended periods in 1991. That November, Republicans made big gains in the midterm elections for the General Assembly, and some Democrats blamed Wilder’s growing unpopularity for the losses. Shortly after that, he abandoned his presidential quest, but he was politically weakened as a result. In 1993, Republican George Allen won the governor’s race in a landslide over Mary Sue Terry. Some Democrats blamed Wilder for being an albatross; he complained that Terry should have done more to embrace his legacy of fiscal management.
Out of office, Wilder lectured at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and organized plans for the National Slavery Museum near Fredericksburg. In 2002, he returned to the political arena in his native Richmond. He teamed with a white Republican—former congressman Thomas J. Bliley Jr.—to push successfully to change the city charter to allow for direct election of the mayor. For more than fifty years, the city council had selected the mayor from its own ranks. Wilder said he had no interest in the job himself, but later ran anyway, winning in 2004 with 79 percent of the vote. His one term was controversial: a month before being sworn into office, he ordered the firing of the police chief. He also battled with the city council, the city school board, and the city’s hospital authority, among others, in an effort to clean up a city he called “a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency.” During his tenure, the city’s crime rate went down, while its financial health improved. Economic development also increased. Wilder chose not to run for re-election in 2008.
Wilder’s legacy, though, will likely be his historic election as governor of Virginia. In the years following, black candidates throughout the country attempted to duplicate his success in campaigns for governor or U.S. Senate. All lost until 2006, when Deval Patrick was elected governor of Massachusetts.