Wilder: The Early Years

Program Information

Program: Wilder: An American First
Segment Number: 2 (Watch entire program)
Duration: 00:05:30
Year Produced: 2005
Description:

The inauguration of Doug Wilder in the former capitol of the confederacy made him one of the world’s most powerful black politicians. His name now took its place in history next to Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—but Virginia was also where slavery was introduced to the English colonies - an act that would shape perceptions of the state’s culture for centuries.

When the nation's first elected African-American governor took the oath of office in 1990, American history came full circle. The newly elected governor was L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves. The state that elected him was Virginia, former home to the capital of the Confederacy. The thrill of this irony swept across the country as proof to all Americans that indeed, we shall overcome.

For more information visit: http://www.ideastations.org/wilder/index.html

Transcript

NARRATOR
The inauguration of Doug Wilder in the former capitol of the confederacy made him one of the world’s most powerful black politicians. His name now took its place in history next to Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—
but Virginia was also where slavery was introduced to the English colonies – an act that would shape perceptions of the state’s culture for centuries.

NARRATOR
On a farm in Henrico County north of Richmond, James W. Wilder married Agnes Johnson on April 25th, 1856. There was little celebration to mark the happy occasion. James and Agnes were slaves.

DON BAKER
This is the kind of thing, you wonder how anybody ever overcomes this, they were sold separately, and parted for several years. And then after the emancipation, they were reunited and managed with the absence of any education at all to raise thirteen children, buy a house. So that when Doug’s father Robert who was one of the thirteen children got married they moved into the house at Churchill.

NARRATOR
On January 17th 1931, Robert and his wife Beulah welcomed their 9th of 10 children, a boy, whom they named Lawrence Douglas after activist Frederick Douglas and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Little did they know the child would come to possess the spirit, fight, and eloquence of his namesakes. Though his family was poor, there were always flowers in the vases and music filled the Wilder house.

AGNES NICHOLS
We had a lot of fun. Friday nights was always a free night. We always played games together. We knew all of the games. In fact, that's what I told everybody. Douglas played them and Douglas was going to win. You weren't going to play with Douglas unless he, he was going to be in control of the game. In fact, my youngest, two youngest sisters used to say they weren't going to play with him ever again hahaha.

VONITA FOSTER
Well, he had a normal childhood. His mother did stress education, however. They did a lot of things together, and he learned an awful lot. She made him do the crossword puzzle, and he enjoyed doing crossword puzzles.

DON BAKER
Well, I think one of the things that was apparent early on, that this was a multi-talented individual. It seemed that everything he did, he did well.

NARRATOR
As Young Douglas Wilder moved with ease through his Churchill neighborhood he would learn that all of Richmond was not as accessible to him. While riding on segregated streetcars or on a shopping trip downtown with his mother, Douglas was angered by the limitations put on him by the color of his skin.

L. DOUGLAS WILDER
It bothered me more when we would go up to buy clothes and uh you’d have to guess at size because you couldn’t try the clothes on. And you couldn’t try the suit on and you couldn’t try the pants on so being a growing boy your mother is going to always to buy clothes bigger then you want to wear any way I said these don’t fit “I understand” “why can’t we try them on” “No we can’t try them on’ I just never could understand it, as a matter of fact I never have understood it.

NARRATOR
After graduating from high school in 1947, Wilder wanted to join the Navy but was underage and his mother refused to sign for him. Instead, he entered Virginia Union University in Richmond with plans to major in chemistry. Wilder paid his way by working in a dining room at the segregated John Marshall Hotel.

DON BAKER
He graduated from college at Virginia Union in January of 1952, and by then the Korean war was full-throttle. And, Doug thought about enlisting, but before he could get around to making up his mind he was drafted, And, this was an Army that had been integrated, so blacks were serving side by side with whites for, for the first time, really.

L. DOUGLAS WILDER
I was very disappointed in Korea believing that I’m there fighting for some rights that I don’t have at home but I’ve got to fight for rights for South Korea that doesn’t make any sense and then just after I got back Brown vs. Board of education came out and I said “God you mean it might work, the system just might work”