In April of 1973 in the little town of Taft, Oklahoma, history was made. Lelia Foley-Davis was elected as the first black female mayor in the United States. She was a single mother, raising five children on welfare; doors slammed in her face at every turn. She didn’t let that stop her. She didn’t let anything stop her. Soon after, Doris Davis became the first black female mayor of Compton, California. Other black women have been following in their footsteps ever since.
As of Monday, February 11, when Chardae Jones was sworn in as the Mayor of Braddock, Western Pennsylvania became home to five black female mayors. Braddock, Wilkinsburg, Duquesne, Bridgeville, and Farrell (Mercer County) have joined the ranks of municipalities led by black females at the helm. Many of them are making history as the first black woman elected to their office.
Betty Copeland didn’t plan on becoming the first black female mayor of Bridgeville. Heck, she didn’t even plan on becoming mayor at all.
“I had a group of friends, and one in particular who ended up being my campaign manager, Deb Colosimo, they took me out to lunch, and I thought they were just taking me out to lunch for the heck of it,” Copeland recalls. “And then they finally said to me, ‘we would like you to run for mayor.’ I said, ‘you have got to be kidding.’”
They thought she would be a goodwill ambassador for the town. “I told them I would pray about it.” So she prayed about it and went back to tell them she was in. She never anticipated winning, she “just wanted the experience.”
Then on election night, the incumbent mayor, Pasquale DeBlasio, called her.
“He said ‘madame Mayor’, and I said, ‘no no no.’ I was shocked, because number one, my age had been plastered all over the papers. I thought there was no way they were going to vote for me against this young man. But I was happy that I did win.” Copeland, who recently became a great, great grandmother, is 84.
She credits her victory to her long history of volunteerism in the community, and the people she met during her husband’s tenure on council.
“My husband was Postmaster for Bridgeville, and he retired in 1987. He ran for council and served the borough for four years,” Copeland said. “This is something I never anticipated for myself. But I was volunteering in our library, St. Clair Hospital, the Bridgeville Historical Society, and I think that helped me with the election. Because I got to know a lot of the right people.”
Her campaign slogan, coined by Colosimo, ‘Bridgeville Loves Betty’, probably didn’t hurt, either.
A history of community engagement and advocacy has been the gateway to office for many of these women. If you ask Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones what got her into politics in the first place, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Volunteerism. I learned the best way to help my community is to be in it and engage with my community,” Jones says.
And this doesn’t turn off when they take office. Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett still operates the Wilkinsburg Free Store, where residents can come to get free clothes, coats, furniture, or whatever else they might need. Jones is excited that in the very short time she’s been in office, she’s already gotten a swell of people wanting to know how they can help, and not even in Braddock, but other places.
“I already have people asking me how to get involved in their community,” she said, “and I’m always willing to help them help their communities.”
If you drive about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh, into Mercer County, you’ll find the City of Farrell. If you walk into their city building, you will be in a circular lobby with portraits of all the former mayors ringing the walls. It is an unbroken line of white men, until you hit the very last portrait. It’s of current Mayor, Olive McKeithan. Eleven years ago she became the first black female mayor of Farrell, and she hasn’t looked back.
McKeithan is proud of many of her accomplishments over the years, but is particularly proud to have brought a Juneteenth celebration to the residents of Farrell. Juneteenth is a celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It’s celebrated on June 19th, the day that Union soldiers landed in Galveston, TX and General Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Farrell Juneteenth celebration is a two day affair, with live music, gospel choirs, vendors, and a parade. But because of McKeithan’s driving passion to curb the drugs flowing in and her city’s struggles with the opioid epidemic, she also organizes a drug forum around the event.
“Drugs have increased in all of the communities,” she explains. “It’s terrible, it’s terrible. That fentanyl is terrible. We just buried a young man a few weeks ago that had something that was laced with fentanyl. The girlfriend took it, too, but she didn’t go to sleep—she threw hers up. The boy went to sleep and he died. It’s bad.”
But she stresses that Juneteenth is a celebration, and that Farrell has had a lot of wins under her leadership, like coming out of Act 47 after 32 years.
“There are good things happening here,” McKeithan said.
Having mayors that celebrate events like Juneteenth is a direct result of what happens when there is racial diversity in leadership. So this doesn’t surprise Dr. Larry Davis, Director for the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Clearly it’s important to have representation everywhere,” he said. “Things get by people when they aren’t thinking about them. Different races and genders bring different perspectives. There is better insight.”
He explains that when he’s asked to be on a committee, it’s usually to be the ‘black person’. “Initially, you don’t like that,” he says. “You find out you’re the sole voice for your race, but then you start to be thankful you’re there, because you are bringing them valuable insights.” Braddock’s Jones also felt the tug of representation when she decided to step up to be considered for mayor.
“I also noticed the lack of representation in the community,” she said. “I wanted to see someone like me represent the community.”
Wilkinsburg’s Marita Garrett agrees, representation is really important, and still a work in progress. She grew up in Akron, Ohio, and things were just, well, different. “I never thought about not having a black council person, not having black congress people. In Akron, half of our city council was black. And women, we have a black congresswoman (Marcia Fudge, U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 11th congressional district).”
Fudge is actually the former mayor of Cleveland, and she ran for Congress to replace Stephanie Tubbs Jones, another black female politician, who died while in office. That’s the landscape Garrett was used to.
“Coming here I was like, ‘wait, what?’” she asks, somewhat incredulously. “I’m happy, but we still have our work cut out for us.”
While clearly some of our surrounding areas are making history, the City of Pittsburgh itself has never had a black mayor, and only one female mayor, in entire its history. While it’s a disappointing fact for a lot of people, it also doesn’t surprise Dr. Davis.
“Blacks aren’t challenging whites in dominance for elections,” he explains. If you look at the larger cities that do have black female mayors, like Baltimore, MD and Atlanta, GA, those cities are 63 percent black and 52.4 percent black, respectively. Fudge’s Cleveland is 53.3 percent. Pittsburgh, as of the 2010 census, is 25.8 percent black.
The dearth of black female mayors also makes sense to Davis.
“In terms of perceptions of competence, black women are perceived to be more competent than black men, and even white women. If you think of it as a chart, it would start with white men, then black women, then white women, then black men.”
The reason for this, he explains, is black women historically doing more for themselves. “Black women have always been in the workforce,” he said. “When they talk about women entering the workforce, they mean white women. Black women have a worker’s background.”
Each woman had a reason for running as unique as they are themselves, but many common themes connect them. They all wanted to make a positive impact on their communities, they wanted to help combat issues that they saw negatively impacting their communities, they wanted to see people who looked more like themselves leading their communities, or they wanted to stamp out corruption.
That’s the case for City of Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby. When she took office in January 2018, she discovered that she had been handed quite a mess. In an interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Nesby outlined many of the hurdles she’s been jumping since taking office, including audit deficiencies, real estate tie-ups, and lawsuits. She’s also battling social issues.
Quoted in the same article, she said, “I have three generations of illiteracy, a poverty rate of 76 percent and 40 percent have criminal records—they’re in jail before they get out of high school.” That’s a lot for a brand new, first-time mayor, and now according to Nesby and her supporters, someone is trying to intimidate her.
She recounts finding feces smeared on a bathroom wall, right down the hall from her office, having items stolen and people taking and posting photos of her home on the internet. Part of it might be sour grapes from the previous administration, and part of it might be something more sinister.
“I think it’s a combination of people being afraid of change and me being a black woman, and people that don’t like that I’ve been talking about all of the issues I’ve uncovered,” she said. “Everyone is trying to shut me up.”
Fighting challenges isn’t new to any of these women. And the challenges aren’t always based on race or gender, either. Jones, the youngest of the five, said her age was an issue on her quest to become mayor.
“I didn’t feel I had to prove myself because I’m a black woman, “ Jones said, “but I did have a lot to prove being a young millennial.”
Others, like Copeland and McKeithan, are on the other side of that. McKeithan is 77 and Copeland is 84. They both get asked often about running again when their terms are up. Copeland isn’t sure yet, but McKeithan is already planning to run, and this time, she’s not alone.
“A man is running against me, and so is one of our council members (a woman). It’s going to be different,” she said. “We are all fighting to get those votes.”
From age to background to geography, a lot separate each of these women. But they are joined by a common desire to improve their communities, and a steady confidence that they are the right people to do it.
“I do love this city,” said McKeithen. “It certainly isn’t about the money. It’s a commitment to this community. I raised my children, my grandchildren here.” Duquesne’s Nesby echos that sentiment, “I’m just trying to help the city where I live.”
And none of them are afraid of rolling up sleeves and doing the hard, sometimes scary work of building lasting changes in their communities. Jones channels advice from her mother, advice she would give anyone who wanted to follow in her footsteps: “If it scares you, do it.”