Willie Dell (1992)

Willie Dell


In 1973, Willie Dell became the first Black woman elected to city council in Richmond, Virginia. Dell was a social worker, serving as director of the Richmond Community Senior Center for 20 years, and teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond. Her spouse, the Presbyterian minister Nathan Dell, longtime pastor of Woodville Presbyterian Church, described her as “a servant of people and God.” Her public witness went back to the boycott of the segregated lunch counters of Richmond’s biggest department stores, Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhoads, and the protests surrounding the detention of the Richmond 34. Dell’s election flowed from a U.S. Supreme Court mandated change in Richmond’s councilmanic districts — in 1970 the city annexed 23 square miles of majority white Chesterfield County in order to diminish Black electoral power. A defender of the aged and the impoverished, Dell was also known as an upsetter — when she was elected to council, councilmembers did not have office space or administrative staff. Dell set up a card table in council chambers in order to handle calls from her constituents, and sat in until councilmembers gained support staff. She served as a Presbyterian representative at interfaith and antipoverty gatherings in Zimbabwe, Kenya, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. In the late 1980s she began relief work in Haiti, working in a home for boys.

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