Wilder inaugurated as nation's first elected black governor

By CAROLYN CLICK  |  Jan. 13, 1990
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RICHMOND, Va. -- L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves raised in the segregated South, was inaugurated Saturday as the nation's first elected black governor, saying he sees a future in which 'nothing is impossible.'

On a blustery, sunny day, retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell administered the oath of office to Wilder, 58, who becomes Virginia's 66th chief executive. As cheers rose from the crowd of thousands gathered for the inauguration, a 19-gun salute reverberated around the historic State Capitol.

'I see a Virginia of hope and happiness, of mothers and fathers building and nurturing families in those hearthstones where the cradle of childhood is rocked with expectations for the future ... a future in which nothing is impossible,' Wilder said.

Donald Beyer, a Northern Virginia car dealer who defeated the widow of a Republican governor, was also inaugurated as lieutenant governor, and Mary Sue Terry, was installed for a second term as attorney general.

Wilder, whose election Nov. 7 focused international attention on a state once strictly segregated, said in his inaugural address that his win marked 'not a victory of party or the accomplishments of an individual, but the triumph of an idea -- an idea as old as America; as old as the God who looks out for us all.'

'It is the idea expressed so eloquently from this great Commonwealth by those who gave shape to the greatest nation ever known -- Jefferson, Madison, Mason and their able colleagues. The idea that all men and women are created equal,' Wilder said.

Wilder's victory over Republican Marshall Coleman was viewed by many as a triumph of race relations in a state tagged by historian V.O. Key as a 'political museum piece' for its tenacious adherence to the past.

But Wilder, who has transformed himself over the past decade from a political maverick to a moderate Democrat, assumes leadership of a prosperous, urbanized Commonwealth that has pretty much shed the last vestiges of its Confederate heritage.

'There is this great sense of hope that is pervasive in the air,' said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who dismissed suggestions that he will be uncomfortable sharing the national spotlight with Wilder.

'People who think that way have minds so small they can only get one Afro-American in their brain at a time,' Jackson said.

During his brief inaugural remarks, Wilder chose to focus, not on the historic significance of his election, but with ways to cope with an anticipated downturn in the state's economy.

'Specifically, we must be partners in working toward a revived economy -- a healthy and thriving economy that provides equal opportunity for all Virginians,' Wilder said.

'While the flow may have slowed, Virginia's new mainstream is far from drying up. It shall be the task of this administration to ensure that a rising tide of prosperity and opportunity is possible in the future.'

He made only veiled references to the slavery and segregation blacks endured in America.

'Let us likewise be thankful that -- while our country gave birth to a freedom long denied and delayed for all who love freedom -- the belief in these dreams held by those forebears was passed from generation to generation, and spawned the seeds that propagated the will and the desire to achieve,' Wilder said.

Aided by his pro-choice stand on abortion, Wilder was considered the front-runner through much of the campaign, a sharp contrast to the underdog label he wore in 1985 when he was elected lieutenant governor.

His election in November made him the first black to win a governorship, although a black briefly served as Louisiana's governor during Reconstruction.

He was once best known for shaking up the Virginia political establishment with his high-profile attempts to abolish the state song 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginia' because of its references to slavery.

Wilder now basks in the moderate political climate established by former Gov. Charles Robb, now a U.S. senator, and outgoing Gov. Gerald Baliles.

'I represent Virginia's new mainstream,' Wilder declared during the campaign.

For weeks, the one-time Capital of the Confederacy has been abuzz with planning for the inaugural weekend -- the most expensive in Virginia history.

In the wake of recent bombings linked to white supremist groups, police were taking extra precautions, but authorities said Friday Wilder had not been threatened.

Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born in Richmond on Jan. 17, 1931, the next to youngest of eight children, and named for two famous black Americans, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

After graduation from Virginia Union University in 1951, Wilder was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea, where he earned a Bronze Star.

On his return from the war, Wilder enrolled at Howard University Law School. After graduation, he returned to his hometown to set up a law practice.

He was first elected to public office in 1969, breaking the color barrier in the Virginia Senate.

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