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Her City, Her Rules: Celebrating Black Women at the Helm of America’s Largest Cities

mayors of large cities

Her City, Her Rules: Celebrating Black Women at the Helm of America’s Largest Cities

The stories of black women who have taken the national stage in politics are often told. Some people have heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, a proud sharecropper who dared to take on the Democratic Party in 1964 by attending the convention as an alternate delegate with the Freedom Democratic Party. Many have seen the recent movie of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress in 1968 and the very first African-American to run for president in the Democratic Party in 1972. Southerners, especially Texans, know about Barbara Jordan, the first black woman in Congress who hailed from the South. And more recently, we have our fortress keepers: Maxine Waters and Sheila Jackson Lee who have held their seats in Congress since the 1990’s and are powerhouses in their own right. Our first black woman in the Senate was Carol Moseley Braun who served in 1993, and her short tenure leaves her a distant memory. In contrast, most people know Kamala Harris, briefly a senator in 2017 and now vice-president. Not so many know the black LGBT woman, Senator Laphonza Butler, who was appointed to replace Dianne Feinstein at the end of 2023.

Because they were on the national stage, these amazing black women get a lot of recognition. But I want to take a moment to talk about some other sheroes – the black women who have run, or are running our major cities. Mayors are elected to govern their cities, serve and protect citizens, maintain law and order and bring about economic prosperity.  Running a city takes an amazing skill set. You have to be politically savvy, understanding the unwritten power structure and how to navigate it. You have to be a decision maker, able to convince, communicate and command. You have to care about the city and its residents so that you can create and execute the policies and activities that will benefit them. You have to have a vision for how to economically develop the city, attract businesses, ensure employment.

Like Obama cleaning up Bush’s mess, black women become mayors when cities are struggling, and the people are looking for someone who knows the city, knows its problems and has a record for tackling issues. For example, Doris A. Davis was one of the first black women to run a major US city when she was elected mayor of Compton in 1973. In 1965, Davis became the first black city clerk of Compton when it was predominantly white. Eight years later, after the 1965 Watts riots in neighboring Los Angeles, Compton received an influx of African Americans who made the city 70% black and much more impoverished. By the time Davis was elected mayor, the citizens of Compton now faced high crime rates, the emergence of gangs, and high unemployment due in large part to the erosion of the area manufacturing base. Davis raised taxes, hired police, lured businesses to the city and opened summer recreational centers for the kids – all in 4 years.

The next black woman to run a major city was Carrie Saxon Perry – known for the big hats which kept her from having to always have perfect hair. Perry became mayor of Hartford, CT in 1987. She had to deal with the aftermath of Rodney King and is credited with preventing riots. She championed LGBT rights in Hartford before the rest of the state was on board. She also worked to reduce gang activity and drug trafficking.

Sharon Pratt was a DC native who tried to take on former Mayor Marion Barry’s machine and failed spectacularly. Elected in 1990, Pratt ran on the promise to remove Barry’s corruption. She ran against three longtime councilmembers whom she referred to as “three blind mice” –  part of Barry’s machine who did nothing to stop the city’s decay. Unfortunately, Pratt’s efforts to clean up the city angered many people. She tried to win statehood for DC but was shot down by Congressional Republicans. She lost the Washington Redskins to Maryland when she would not build a bigger stadium. The Council even launched a recall campaign against her. The city’s working class called her elitist and she was condemned for having a stylist. In 1994, it was clear that the city would run out of money; Pratt was cited for mismanagement, and Congress took over DCs budget, effectively ending Pratt’s chances for re-election.

Sharon Sayles Belton was the mayor of Minneapolis for 8 years, from 1994-2001. A life long resident of the twin cities, Sayles Belton had been in politics since 1983 with  a seat on the City Council for 10 years before she ran for Mayor, pledging to reform the police department. She dealt with major utilities and water issues and property values increased under her terms. Sayles Belton also stabilized neighborhoods and racial tensions. But she lost to a man who had the backing of the police union.

In 2002, Shirley Franklin became the first black woman mayor of Atlanta, holding the office for two terms until 2010. Coming in with a budget deficit, she immediately raised taxes and slashed the number of employees. She fixed the city’s sewer system and made the city “green”. Franklin lobbied to have Dr. King’s papers brought to Morehouse, and was part of a “Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition”. Franklin was considered a viable candidate for Georgia governor as well as a possible presidential candidate.

In 2007, Sheila Dixon was another black woman mayor who aimed high but fell. Dixon became the mayor of Baltimore when her predecessor became Governor. Under Dixon, the homicide rate dropped for the first time in 30 years. Dixon developed a crime plan, focused on community policing and targeting violent offenders. She also helped complete several city developments. Unfortunately, Dixon got caught up in the illegal use of gift cards which were meant to be used charitably, but instead were taken and used to by gifts for her staff. Dixon stepped down after sentencing but has since run for re-election several times with a large following.

Then came 2018, when African American women simultaneously ran several of America’s large cities:  Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta, Sharon Weston Broome in Baton Rouge, Catherine Pugh in Baltimore, Vi Lyles in Charlotte, NC, Paula Hicks-Hudson in Toledo and Muriel Bowser in Washington, D.C. There were many articles about this burst of female energy. These were amazing women. Educated, community minded, sorority affiliated, politically experienced.  And truly tested. Bowser and Bottoms, in addition to Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago, had to deal with COVID’s health crisis and the economic devastation as well as the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. Lightfoot and Bowser locked heads with Trump; Bottoms dealt with her Republican governor. And yet, by 2024, even more large cities had black women as mayors including London Breed in San Francisco, Tishaura Jones in St. Louis, LaToya Cantrell in New Orleans, Cherelle Parker in Philadelphia and Karen Bass in Los Angeles.

In most of the cities these women lead, Black residents, while a numerical majority, have struggled to achieve political and economic power. And, as demonstrated over and over again, they have strained relations with law enforcement. It is this demographic that is electing black women, looking at them as relatable – able to understand the underlying needs of the city’s citizens, especially people of color. And these mayors are willing to speak out about racial issues, including the issues around economic parity.

The rise of these women did not occur in a vacuum, 67% of all black women vote. Black women have been organizing for decades – Ella Baker was the backbone of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, but rarely gets credit. Black women started moving into government positions in the 1960s with B-PAC, Black Women Organized for Political Action, which promoted, supported and educated black women about the political process. Another organization, the Black Women’s Political Action Committee was started in 1983 for the same purpose – involving black women in the political process. Many black women also got funding from EMILY’S List, a 39-year-old PAC that funds pro-choice Democratic women. Since 2014, another PAC, Higher Heights for America, has focused specifically on funding black women’s campaigns. The pipeline has been full for many years, as black women have held positions as treasurers, clerks and City Councilwomen before choosing to run as mayor.

America’s big cities are home to millions of people who love the access to jobs, education, culture and nightlife that cities have. Young people are energized by the ability to connect with and meet others. Older people like the accessibility that cities offer. America’s big cities tend to be diverse with many different ethnic groups, nationalities, cultures creating pockets and neighborhoods with businesses that cater to their needs.  A mayor’s job is to maintain that city so that it is constantly attracting people and businesses and providing the utilities and safety that make the city run smoothly.  It is not an easy job. But we have a wonderful crew of black women who are up to the task, even running the mega city of Los Angeles with nearly 10 million people, the second largest city in America, and one of the biggest cities in the world. As St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said, “Men run for office to be somebody; women run to do something.” Black women are running cities. It will not be long before we see a black woman governor. We’re in the pipeline and we can only go up.

To read more about these amazing women, Sharon D. Wright Austin has compiled their stories in a new book: Political Black Girl Magic: The Elections and Governance of Black Female Mayors 

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