State Watch

Only three Black governors have ever been elected in US history

AP-Bryan Woolston

When Democrat Wes Moore won Maryland’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 8, he made history by becoming the state’s first Black governor. It was an honor he said he’d never imagined.  

“It’s humbling because I know the history of this state and I understand how completely improbable this journey is,” Moore told theGrio’s April Ryan. 

“If you would have looked at a child who had handcuffs on his wrists at 11 years old, who just years earlier watched his father die in front of him, whose mother was working multiple part-time jobs because she did not have a job yet that was paying her benefits … and if you would have said to that child, you’re one day going to be governor, I don’t think there was anybody who would have believed you.” 

Moore joined a select group with his accomplishment. Only five Black people — all men — have served as governor of one of the 50 U.S. states in history. Only two of them before Moore were elected.  

Democrat L. Douglas Wilder was the first Black person to be elected governor in 1990. He served one term in Virginia before leaving office to become a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Democrat Deval Patrick was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2007 and served two terms. He is now a professor at Harvard University.

David Paterson, the only other contemporary Black governor, served as New York’s governor when he finished the remainder of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) term from March 2008 to January 2011. 

Before those three officials, only two other Black governors served. Both can be traced back to the time of Reconstruction.  

In 1868, Republican Oscar Dunn, the first Black lieutenant governor ever elected, served as acting governor of Louisiana when Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth (R) was injured in 1871. Dunn became the nation’s first acting governor. 

When Dunn died of suspicious causes in 1871, Republican P.B.S. Pinchback, who was president of the state’s Senate at the time, assumed the position of lieutenant governor. That changed in 1872 when Warmoth had impeachment charges brought against him. Pinchback assumed office and became the country’s second Black governor, though he served only from Dec. 9, 1872, to Jan. 13, 1873. 

The country has never had a Black female governor. 

That thought weighed heavily on Democrat Deidre DeJear’s mind as she began her campaign for governor in Iowa.  

The lack of numerous Black governors — and any Black female governors — made her campaign “that much more necessary,” DeJear told The Hill. 

“We can no longer question the validity of Black folks running in leadership,” said DeJear.  

But DeJear still found herself questioning her campaign at times, and she knew others were as well.

“Questioning the validity of my candidacy was questioning the validity of my existence,” she said. 

Black leaders have been seeking governorships for decades.  

In both 1982 and 1986, Democrat Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, ran for California’s governor’s mansion. In 1995, former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields was the Democratic nominee in Louisiana. Former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) ran for governor of Florida in 2018. 

Yet there are zero sitting Black governors, a fact that won’t change until Moore’s inauguration.  

And, despite former President Obama’s historic election, the number of Black political leaders in government is disproportionately small compared to the population of Black America.

There are only three Black senators serving in office: Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).  

Moore told PBS’s Judy Woodruff part of the delay is due to the country’s history of racial injustice creating an “uneven journey” for Black leaders.  

“You don’t have to look any further than the state of Maryland to understand the complications of racial history,” Moore said. “What I do know, though, is, as a state, and what we saw here in the state of Maryland, was that we had to be unafraid to approach it. We had to be unafraid to talk about it, but we also had to be unafraid to know that, if we’re going to move forward as a collective in the future, we could not be constrained by the past.” 

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in South Carolina, said even though more Black candidates haven’t been elected governor, there has been a shift when it comes to the perception of who is the ideal candidate. 

“The fact of the matter is, the complexion of this country is changing, which means the complexion of those who show up to the polls is changing,” said Seawright. “Places where a certain type of candidate was considered the better candidate, I think that model is outdated and it’s changing. As the field of Black and brown candidates continues to grow, in particular Black candidates, you’re going to see a real shock wave to the political ecosystem with candidates who nobody had on their radar emerging to end up being governors.”

A number of Black candidates ran for higher office in the midterms, including Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Florida Senate candidate Val Demings, Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes and North Carolina Senate candidate Cheri Beasley, all of whom are Democrats and all of whom lost. Warnock is running in a runoff election on Dec. 6 in Georgia against another Black candidate, Republican Herschel Walker.  

Seawright added that though there was a “delay” between Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories and Moore’s election, it doesn’t mean progress has stopped.

“I also think there’s a future wave of young mayors and young elected officials who are African Americans who are being groomed for the next level of leadership, including the gubernatorial level,” he said. “We, as a party, just have to make certain that we are monitoring their progress and helping them evolve and mature on the job so they can be viewed as prepared to be an executive.”

DeJear agrees progress has continued. Though she lost her race to incumbent Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), DeJear made history twice in the last four years. 

In 2018, she became the first African American to be nominated to a statewide political office in Iowa. This year, she became the first African American to be the Democratic or Republican nominee for governor in Iowa.  

“While it was incremental, progress has been made,” said DeJear. “But the reason why it was incremental is because we have people on the sidelines … hesitant to believe in what [is] possible, to believe in something larger than what they saw before their eyes.” 

She also said progress can’t happen if the nation does not embrace Black leadership.   

“When it comes down to public service, the people have to embrace Black leadership in order for Blacks to excel in the space,” she said. “Since 2016, the defense mechanisms have been propped up, and there’s a great deal of fear out there with folks. I think sometimes our white brothers and sisters fear that history will repeat itself and they will be treated how Blacks were treated during one of the most terrible times as a country. But they’re circumventing what growth looks like.” 

She continued, “The idea around democracy is that we all have access to life, liberty and happiness, and when Blacks have been in leadership, it’s not an opportunity to pit other communities against one another. It’s an opportunity to lift all communities up. That’s the difference in how we choose to lead because that’s how we’ve been conditioned to lead.”

Tags Andrew Gillum David A. Paterson David Paterson Deval Patrick Deval Patrick Douglas Wilder maryland Tom Bradley Wes Moore
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