MARCH 8, 1977
Henry L. Marsh III became the first Black mayor of the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond.
Growing up in Virginia, he attended a one-room school that had seven grades and one teacher. Afterward, he went to Richmond, where he became vice president of the senior class at Maggie L. Walker High School and president of the student NAACP branch.
When Virginia lawmakers debated whether to adopt “massive resistance,” he testified against that plan and later won a scholarship to Howard University School of Law. He decided to become a lawyer to “help make positive change happen.” After graduating, he helped win thousands of workers their class-actions cases and helped others succeed in fighting segregation cases.
“We were constantly fighting against race prejudice,” he recalled. “For instance, in the case of Franklin v. Giles County, a local official fired all of the black public school teachers. We sued and got the decision overruled.”
In 1966, he was elected to the Richmond City Council and later became the city’s first Black mayor for five years. He inherited a landlocked city that had lost 40% of its retail revenues in three years, comparing it to “taking a wounded man, tying his hands behind his back, planting his feet in concrete and throwing him in the water and saying, ‘OK, let’s see you survive.’”
In the end, he led the city from “acute racial polarization towards a more civil society.” He served as president of the National Black Caucus of Elected Officials and as a member of the board of directors of the National League of Cities. As an education supporter, he formed the Support Committee for Excellence in the Public Schools. He also hosts the city’s Annual Juneteenth Celebration.
The courthouse where he practiced now bears his name and so does an elementary school. He has also worked to bridge the city’s racial divide, creating what is now known as Venture Richmond. He has often been quoted the saying, “It doesn’t impress me to say that something has never been done before, because everything that is done for the first time had never been done before.”