February 15: Virginia Union University and the HBCU Legacy of Producing Black Mayors

Autumn A. Arnett
3 min readFeb 15, 2019

Richmond, Virginia has elected more Black mayors than any other major U.S. city in the country *— and Virginia Union University has educated most of them.

Of the city’s eight Black mayors since Henry Leander Marsh was elected as the first Black mayor of Richmond in 1977, half of them — including Marsh — are VUU alumni, making Virginia Union the top HBCU producer of Black mayors outside of Howard University. The others are Roy West, Leonidas B. Young and Dwight C. Jones.

Outside of Virginia Union, there are two other HBCUs that have played a large role in shaping the future politicans of their cities: LeMoyne-Owen College (Memphis) and Miles College (Birmingham).

All four of Memphis’s Black mayors have been HBCU-educated, and 2 of those at LeMoyne-Owen. The college’s third HBCU alumnus among the mayoral ranks is D.C.’s “mayor for life,” Marion Barry, who completed his undergraduate studies at LeMoyne-Owen and went on to obtain a graduate degree at Fisk, where he’d be play a key role in the Nashville Student Protests and the nonviolence movement. (The city’s other two Black mayors, J.O. Patterson and A.C. Wharton, attended Fisk University and Tennessee State University, respectively — both Tennessee HBCUs.)

And in Birmingham, six of the city’s seven Black mayors have been HBCU alumni, and four of those graduated from Miles College. Richard Arrington, the city’s first Black mayor, was both an alumnus, and an administrator at Miles, serving as chair and then dean of the Natural Sciences Department after a stint on the faculty. William A. Bell, the city’s second Black mayor, got his law degree from Miles College, as did Carole Smitherman, who graduated at the top of her law class after earning her undergraduate degree from Spelman College. Roderick Royal, another of the city’s Black mayors, received his education at Tuskegee University, but served on the Miles College faculty for some time. Current Mayor Randall Woodfin is a graduate of Morehouse College.

Howard University’s mayoral tree includes three mayors of Atlanta (Andrew Young, Shirley Franklin, Kasim Reed); three D.C. mayors (Walter E. Washington and Sharon Pratt, and Adrian Fenty, who is a graduate of Howard University School of Law); Richmond’s Ruddy McCollum Henry Leander Marsh (Howard Law); Newark Mayor Ras Baraka; and David Dinkins, the first Black mayor of NYC.

Other HBCUs whose alumni have gone on to serve as mayor of major U.S. cities: Alabama State University: Eugene Sawyer (Chicago); Bennett College: Yvonne Johnson (Greensboro); Florida A&M University: Keisha Lance-Bottoms (Atlanta), Kwame Kilpatrick (Detroit), Melvin Carter (St. Paul, MN); Morehouse College: Woodfin and Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson; North Carolina A&T State University: Patrick Cannon (Charlotte), Yvonne Johnson (grad school); North Carolina Central: Clarence Lightner, first Black mayor of Raleigh, and Maynard Jackson (Law School); Oakwood University: John F. Street (Philadelphia); Prairie View A&M University: Emmanuel Cleaver (Kansas City); Texas Southern University: Dwaine Carraway (Dallas); Tuskegee University: Royal and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; Xavier University of New Orleans: Current New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

Baltimore’s first black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, did not graduate from an HBCU, but he served as dean of Howard’s law school. Cincinnati’s Ken Blackwell served as a trustee of Wilberforce University, and Detroit’s Coleman Young did not receive a college degree, but served as a Tuskegee Airman.

*Major city for the purpose of this article is defined as the 100 most populous cities and Washington D.C., which fell out of the Top 100 in the 2015 Census.



Autumn A. Arnett

Autumn A. Arnett is an advocate for education equity, an HBCU alumna, Founder of A Black Child Can (aBlackChildCan.org). Connect with her via www.a2arnett.com.