The first black mayor of a major U.S. city was Carl Stokes, a Democrat who was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio in 1967. Later that same year, Richard Hatcher was elected mayor of Gary, Indiana. This ushered in the first generation of black mayors in the US, and in the early 1970s major cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. all elected their first black mayors. The first black mayor of a major southern city was Maynard Jackson, also a Democrat, who was elected mayor of Atlanta, Georgia in 1973.
Various factors contributed to the rise in black leadership, which would continue on into the 1990s. First and foremost, the civil rights movements had produced strong black leaders and increased political consciousness and electoral participation among blacks, as well as sympathetic whites. Many of the early mayoral races were won on racialized platforms and were seen as being a part of a larger black struggle. Second, after the turmoil of the 1960s, white flight to the suburbs increased, leaving a concentrated black population and political power base in the major cities. Over the past 30 years, almost every large city in the US has had a black mayor at some point.
Some black mayoral luminaries in the first generation of black leadership include Coleman Young of Detroit, who was elected in 1970 and served for an unprecedented 20 years, Wilson Goode of Philadelphia and Harold Washington of Chicago. Except for Coleman Young, all the black mayors elected prior to 1976 were college graduates, many with post-graduate degrees.
A second generation of black mayors emerging from the 1990s into the 21st century begins to depart from an agenda dominated by race and civil rights. Other generational differences have surfaced: the new guard is less strongly tied to the Democratic Party, more pro-business and pro-privatization, less positive toward the federal government, and more positive toward school vouchers.
Black Mayors by the Numbers
US Census figures for the year 2000 show that among the top ten largest cities in the US, Detroit has the largest percentage of blacks (83 percent), followed by Philadelphia (44 percent) and Chicago (38 percent). The city with the largest absolute number of blacks is New York City, followed by Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Blacks represent less than 10 percent of the population in Phoenix, San Antonio and San Diego. Newark, the 64th largest city in the country, is 57 percent African American.
According to a 2001 study on black elected officials by the Joint Center for Politics and Economic studies, 57.1 percent of big city black mayors were elected in cities without a black majority. The same study counted 454 black mayors, 39 congressional office holders and a total of 9,101 black elected officials nationwide.
The state with the largest number of black officials and black mayors was Mississippi, with 892 black officials and 54 black mayors. Each state had at least one black elected official except for Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
The National Conference of Black Mayors reports there are 25 cities with populations over 100,000 that have black mayors as of 2003. Although New York City has the largest absolute number of African Americans, it has had only one black mayor, David Dinkins, who served from 1990-93.
» Bositis, David. Black Elected Officials: A Statistical Summary, 2001. Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2002.
» McWhirter, Cameron. “Black Vote Gave Rise to Leaders.” Detroit News February 14, 2000.
» “Newark.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online 2005.
» US Census Bureau; generated by POV staff using American FactFinder, June 1, 2005.