As a lawyer and politician, Henry L. Marsh III has been a constant in the Richmond area for half a century, battling in the courts, City Hall and the state Capitol for equal rights for African-Americans.
His accomplishments on behalf of others - principally, legal victories against racial discrimination in schools, the workplace and government - may not be as well-known as his signal personal achievement: In 1977, Marsh became the first black mayor of Richmond, a majority-black city that had been a capital of the Confederacy.
Marsh’s tenure at City Hall - it began in 1966 with his election to City Council - tracked the struggles of the era. Black political power was in full flower and would ultimately break the long grip of the white business class.
In 1991, Marsh was elected to the Virginia Senate, serving 23 years before resigning to take an appointment by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to the three-member board that oversees the state’s liquor monopoly and polices sales of alcoholic beverages. In the Senate, Marsh was chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee, which has jurisdiction over the criminal law and the selection of judges - areas important to a civil rights litigator.
For Marsh, who was born in Richmond and spent his earliest years near rural Smithfield, attending segregated schools sparked his passion for civil rights.
As a senior at all-black Virginia Union University, Marsh testified before the state legislature in opposition to Virginia’s defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision outlawing separate public schools for blacks and whites. In what was known as Massive Resistance, the state would shutter schools rather than bow to desegregation.
Marsh’s testimony impressed another who was at the state Capitol that day for the latest skirmish in the long battle against segregation: Oliver W. Hill, a prominent civil rights lawyer.
Hill encouraged Marsh to attend law school at Howard University in Washington, where Marsh’s roommate was a future rival and another young Richmonder of promise, L. Douglas Wilder.
As a newly minted lawyer, Marsh practiced with Hill and another titan of the civil rights bar, Samuel Tucker.
Within four years of his election to City Council, Marsh became vice mayor. At the time, the mayor and vice mayor were selected by the nine-member council.
That system, under which day-to-day operation of the city fell to a manager hired and fired by the council, had been in place since the late 1940s. It was dropped in 2004, when voters approved restoring direct election of the mayor, which had been the practice until the switch to a city manager.
The fight over the mayoralty pitted Marsh against Wilder, who was among the principal advocates of direct election and - ultimately - the first popularly elected mayor in more than half a century.
IN HIS WORDS
A small moment in life with a big impact
While a student at Virginia Union University, I testified before a joint session of the General Assembly against a proposal to amend the Virginia Constitution to permit public funds to be appropriated to private and sectarian schools. I was the only student speaker (of 37 speakers) who testified at the public hearing and, afterward, attorney Oliver W. Hill, who spoke on behalf of the State Conference of the NAACP, congratulated me and offered me a job in his law office. I graciously accepted his offer and subsequently became a partner in his law firm.
My late father, who after losing his wife during the Great Depression had two of his wife’s sisters raise us (four children, ages 6 months to 6 years old) for five years, and then he reunited his family in Richmond. Other than myself, each of my siblings turned out to be straight-A students and had successful careers. Other role models include attorneys Oliver W. Hill and Samuel Tucker, who encouraged and trained me to become a civil rights attorney and involved me in the fight for racial justice. Another role model is my sister, who sacrificed her opportunity to become a physician in order to provide financial assistance to her three younger siblings.
Something that might surprise others
After a 20-year hobby as a tennis player, at age 58 I became addicted to golf and regularly played up until this year.
Something you’d like to do
Learn to play the piano.
Alternate profession or course of study
My second choice of a profession would be the ministry. I was strongly encouraged to become a preacher, but my passion to become a lawyer was too strong.
The Bible, because of the many inspirational lessons contained in the Scriptures.
I am most proud of becoming the first African-American mayor in the history of Richmond. During the time of intense polarization, I successfully assisted Richmond in making the transition from white leadership to black leadership.
Favorite thing about Richmond region
The spirit of its people and their commitment to excellence in education, especially for the children.
HENRY L. MARSH III
Position: ABC commissioner, former local and state lawmaker
Born/hometown: Dec. 10, 1933; Richmond
College: Virginia Union University (bachelor's in sociology), Howard University (law degree)
Family: three children