First Black Female Mayor in Mississippi Passes Away at 86
Unita Blackwell, Mississippi’s first African-American female mayor, passed away Monday at the age of 86.
Blackwell, who was born to sharecroppers in the segregated south, grew up in the Mississippi Delta and in Arkansas during the Great Depression, reports local news station WREG. She was an outspoken civil rights activist who became involved in the civil rights movement in 1964 as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Blackwell, who had to leave school at 12 to work as a farm laborer, was among a group of Black residents in Issaquena County in Mississippi who once tried to register to vote, but were denied due to a test that was set up for them to fail. From then on, she worked tirelessly to help secure voting rights for African-Americans who made up the majority of the Delta population, but held zero political power in the government.
At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Blackwell joined forces with activist Fannie Lou Hamer to challenge the seating of the state’s all-white delegation as part of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1965, she also sued the Issaquena County school board after 300 students, including her son, were suspended for wearing pins supporting civil rights.
According to the Clarion Ledger, in 1976 Blackwell helped Mayersville win its charter and went on to become its first mayor later that year, making her the first African-American female mayor in Mississippi. She served from 1976 to 1993 and then again from 1997 to 2001. During this time, she helped to provide water and sewerage services to residents and worked to improve housing in the area.
In 1982, with a high school equivalency diploma under her belt, and with the financial support from a fellowship, she enrolled into a regional planning program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed her master’s degree there in 1983.
Additionally, the civil rights activist served as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors from 1990 to 1992 and was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1991 and 1992. Afterward, in 1993, she ran for Congress in a special election, but lost to fellow Democrat Bennie Thompson, who still holds the seat today.
Thompson told the Clarion Ledger, “I am saddened by the passing of Unita Blackwell. She dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights in Mississippi. We are forever grateful for her work and sacrifice. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and all those who loved her.”