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Nation’s first black elected governor honored with democracy award

The nation’s first Black elected governor was recently recognized for his work strengthening democracy at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was honored as the recipient of the Defender of Democracy Award on Sept. 29. The award highlights Wilder’s achievements while serving in high political positions throughout his life.

“I’m very flattered and feel so honored to be recognized for doing things that we all want to see done in moving America forward and maintaining the progress, but not being satisfied with what we have and resting on any laurels continuing to move ahead,” Wilder told The Daily Progress.

Wilder graduated from Virginia Union University in 1951 with a degree in chemistry. He later received his juris doctor degree in 1959 from the School of Law at Howard University.

The former governor’s career in politics kicked off in 1969, when he was elected as the first Black state senator in Virginia since Reconstruction.

Remembering those before is important when becoming a trailblazer in the Black community, according to Roger L. Gregory, the first Black judge to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Many broad shoulders helped you get there, generations way before me, their blood, sweat and tears.” Gregory said. “Remembering that my job is to do the best I can, but also leave rope behind so other people can come along and make their achievements, no matter their color, faith or religion, is what’s important.”

The two trailblazers were law partners at their law firm, Wilder, Gregory and Associates, in 1982.

“He [Wilder] is awesome,” Gregory said. “Listening to him today, I was saying thank God for being able to be in the same room to hear this legend. He just loves the people. That’s his secret. He loves the people, and he’s always led that way by listening to the people. That’s been his driving force, and it’s just a pleasure to be a part of that.”

Wilder served as state senator for more than 15 years. After completing his term, he was elected lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985. From 1990 to 1994, Wilder took on the role of Virginia’s 66th governor, and became the first Black elected governor in the United States. Roughly 10 years later, he further decorated his political background and became Richmond’s popularly elected mayor.

After finishing his time as mayor, Wilder continued his position as a distinguished professor at the school bearing his name, the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Being told he couldn’t do it is what kept him pushing, Wilder said.

“Whenever you’re told you can’t do something, you need to examine yourself first to see if you’ve done all that you can do,” Wilder said. “If you have, then you need to do something else. If you haven’t, then you need to examine yourself.”

The Defender of Democracy Award “honors and recognizes individuals whose positive actions help improve or strengthen democracy,” according to a statement from UVa’s Center for Politics.

Last year’s award recognized nine U.S. Capitol and D.C. Metropolitan police officers who protected the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

Wilder was honored and presented a plaque on Grounds at the Rotunda. The event included a luncheon with the Center for Politics staff, students and Wilder’s family and friends.

The center received award recipient suggestions from those who “support the center and come to their events,” according to Larry J. Sabato, director of UVa’s Center for Politics.

“We really did have a lot of nominations for Douglas Wilder,” Sabato said. ”We were given a lot of good suggestions, but he’s an institution. When I saw his name, I thought, ‘That’s the one.’”


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