On a recent morning in his new office, Henry L. Marsh III slammed his fist on a table with unexpected force.
He wasn’t angry. He was remembering his first brush with the roiling politics of the civil rights era when, as a young student, he watched attorney Oliver W. Hill thunder against Massive Resistance policies while speaking to the Virginia General Assembly.
“He shook his fist at them. He said, ‘If you do this, we will beat you,’ ” Marsh said in an interview this week. “And I had never heard a black person talk to a bunch of white people in power like that.”
That day with Hill launched Marsh on a path that led to a historic power shift in Richmond politics in 1977, when Marsh became the city’s first black mayor after the election of the city’s first majority-black City Council.
As the new group took control, Marsh sought to convey a message of harmony by assuring Richmond’s old guard in the business community that swift change was unlikely, but the status quo was not good enough.
“We tried to stabilize the situation,” said Marsh, 81, who now serves as a commissioner on the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board after he retired from the state Senate last summer.
Willie J. Dell, another member of the 1977 majority, said she wishes she had saved some of the letters and messages she received after the election.
“That was a turbulent time,” Dell said.
About 700 people showed up for a party at The Mosque, now the Altria Theater, after the election that year, to celebrate the first council election in seven years and to mark the moment’s historic significance.
Almost 38 years later, the city is preparing to officially mark the significance of the 1977 election for the first time by putting up honorary street signs with the names of the five men and women who made up the first black council majority.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones proposed the honorary street signs and the City Council approved them as a way to mark Black History Month and remind Richmonders of the 1977 election.
There will be another party tonight, this time at the Hippodrome Theater in Jackson Ward.
Dell said she’ll be there, and that she’s going “with something red on so people can see me.”
“I’m 85 and now somebody says: ‘We remember you when ... ’ ” Dell said. “I think it’s wonderful. I’m grateful.”
Federal courts had put Richmond council elections on hold while sorting out a lawsuit challenging the city’s 1970 annexation of part of Chesterfield County, which civil rights activist Curtis J. Holt Sr. and others argued would dilute black voting power in Richmond by adding white voters from a more suburban area.
The result of years of legal back-and-forth was a larger city and a new, ward-based voting system that replaced at-large council elections.
Marsh and Dell already were serving on the City Council by the time of the 1977 special election, representing the 7th and 3rd Districts, respectively.
“I got valuable experience being frozen in office for seven years as the vice mayor,” Marsh said. “So by the time the election took place, I was pretty seasoned.”
After voters went to the polls March 1, 1977, Marsh and Dell were joined by three black newcomers: Walter T. Kenney in the 6th District, Claudette Black McDaniel in the 8th District, and Henry W. “Chuck” Richardson in the 5th District.
Four of the five still are living; McDaniel died in 2010 at the age of 70.
A therapeutic-recreation specialist, McDaniel served on the council from 1977 to 1990. She served as vice mayor for her last six years as the first black woman to hold the position.
Marsh said the ward voting system was negotiated to create four predominantly white districts, four predominantly black districts, and one “tossup” in the 5th District, which had the closest race of that year.
“The city fathers figured they could win that,” Marsh said. “What they didn’t realize was that, at the time the agreement was made, they probably could have won it. But as blacks moved into an area where whites lived, the whites moved out. So by the time the court decided the case, the so-called swing district wasn’t a swing.”
Richardson wasn’t a part of the ticket backed by Marsh, but Marsh said he went to Richardson’s house on election night to congratulate him on his victory and welcome him to “the team.”
In response to the election, Marsh said, there was fear that the black majority might have plans to change Confederate-lined Monument Avenue, which led to discussions of ways to protect it.
“We found out a year later,” Marsh said. “And we just laughed for 15 minutes.”
According to Marsh, the black majority set out to add more libraries in pockets of poverty to boost literacy; sought to support black businesses to help build a black professional class; and tried to make more recreation facilities available to black youths to fight a racially disproportionate number of James River drownings.
“Those problems had existed before, but we were able to use the council majority to make sure that those things were accomplished,” Marsh said.
“I think everybody would agree that we’ve made progress, but we haven’t solved the problems. Poverty is a tremendous problem, not only in Richmond but everywhere it exists.”
Dell said it was a time when black candidates were running for office across the country, and winning.
“I just think it was a period of awakening,” Dell said. “But once you got there, you had to run the city like everybody else. You had to handle the budget. You had to hire folks. ... There’s no black and white way of running a city.”
Leaders at the time also sought to mend racial divisions by creating Richmond Renaissance, a precursor to today’s Venture Richmond, which was envisioned as a racially mixed advisory body on city issues.
“It was to end the polarization. It was so tight that nothing could get done,” Marsh said. “We kept it evenly balanced between black and white to ease the fears that we had a shadow government.”
Marsh also disputed the idea that, as mayor, he ran a “one-man show.”
“That’s not the case. Every decision we made was made by the group,” Marsh said. “And whatever accomplishments the council made were accomplished by the group.”
The era of harmony envisioned after the 1977 election hit a rough spot in the summer of 1978 when the black majority on the council asked then-City Manager William J. Leidinger to resign because of the perception he was not being responsive to the will of the majority, a move that sparked anger in the city’s predominantly white business community, which supported Leidinger. Leidinger resigned but was later elected to a seat on the council.
Richardson recalled the episode in a speech to the City Council last month in support of a separate measure to name the Manchester Courthouse for Marsh and his brother, Harold M. Marsh Sr.
Richardson said the “richest white men in Richmond” called Marsh on the carpet over the Leidinger decision, but he didn’t back down.
Richardson, who described himself as a young man who “didn’t know left from right” at the time, said he was “so proud and so scared” to see Marsh stand up.
“It took courage for him to do that,” Richardson said. “And he faced many a moment like that.”