When the newly-elected Mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, gets sworn in office on December 12, four of the largest cities in the United States will all be headed by Black mayors for the first time in history. In addition, there has also been a spike in Black men and women running for mayoral races in other large cities across the nation; a glimpse of light in otherwise dark times for people of color in this country.
The first Black mayors in American history actually ascended to office during the Reconstruction era. Pierre Caliste Landry of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and Stephen Swails of Kingstree, South Carolina, were both elected in 1868, but the era of Black officials – including mayors – disappeared quickly after the forces of backlash resurged in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow segregation laws. It would be another hundred years before a modern American city elected an African American mayor in 1970!
The first two decades of the twenty-first century has seen a veritable spike in Black civic activism, and hence, top public administration roles taken by people from racial minority backgrounds. Last year, nearly one-third of the largest 100 cities in the U.S. were led by Black mayors, of whom eight were Black women. The latter number currently stands at seven, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, but will rise to nine before the end of the year. In 2020, a record 130 Black women filed to run for Congressional office; a number that rose to an impressive 145 these midterms.
The four largest cities in the United States that have now all elected Black mayors are as follows. Perhaps the most notable one of the lot is Lori Lightfoot, who has been mayor of Chicago since 2019. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has been in office since 2016, the longest of the group. Current New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Karen Bass will both serve four-year terms starting this year. All four mayors in question are affiliated with the Democratic Party, along with the vast majority of other top mayors from minority backgrounds.
This advancement in the public leadership of marginalized communities is far from a mere symbolic gesture. For as the CEO of African American Mayors Association Phyllis Dickerson has noted, most Black mayors usually make it to the top through extreme hardships and bring a new perspective to their office. They know how crippling systemic racism and economic repression can be, and are more motivated to keep others from experiencing the same adversity.