Dr. Willie. W. Herenton, First Black Mayor of Memphis, Looks Back on Career as He Prepares to Run Again

CreditNeemah A. Esmaeilpour for The New York Times

Dr. Willie W. Herenton recalled the days when he attended segregated public schools and was forced to sit at the back of city buses because of the color of his skin. As the South Memphis native reflected, he sat back in his chair and paused before explaining how it all came full circle.

The first African American to serve as superintendent of those once-segregated schools, Herenton (in 1991) beat incumbent mayor Dick Hackett, becoming the first African American elected to serve as Memphis’ mayor.

“It’s one of my biggest accomplishments,” said Herenton, whose 17-year tenure made him Memphis’ longest serving mayor. “To rise up through rejection, discrimination, racism and poverty and then to be elected to the highest position in Memphis and have the power to elevate other qualified African Americans to positions of leadership.”

Now, Herenton says, “God’s not done” with him yet. He wants to be re-elected October 3.

“Oh, we’re heading back to City Hall,” he often proclaims at rallies such as the recent “Women for Herenton” event that boasted more than a thousand women Herenton is counting upon.

“When I saw more than a thousand women attend my event and support my candidacy that day it was affirmation from what I already sensed,” he said.

Thinking back upon his time as mayor, Herenton notes among accomplishments his contribution to the transformation of public housing, where people were living in “such degradation.”

“And when I was campaigning (in ’91), I said if God enlarges my territory I will do something about this; and we did.”

In 2009, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development used the work done by the Herenton administration as a model for the nation. Hundreds of millions of dollars were secured under the federal Hope VI Grant program, which was a national plan to eradicate severely distressed public housing.

“If you look at LeMoyne Gardens, it didn’t look like what it looks like today. We tore all of that down to make it better,” Herenton said, referencing the old South Memphis public housing development that was replaced by a mixed-income community and renamed College Park.

Some argue that the HOPE VI program displaced poor families to make way for people with higher incomes. Herenton cites its benefits to Memphis.

“Those facilities were once unfit for human habitation and we made them livable. I’m proud of that.”

Clearly happy that he was able to aid in the transformation of the area where he once grew up in poverty, Herenton noted that he graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC), only a few feet away from that transformation.

After graduating from LOC, Herenton obtained a master’s degree in Education from the University of Memphis (formerly Memphis State). He spent the early years of his career teaching before serving as a principal and district administrator. He became the superintendent of Memphis City Schools in 1979.

“During my tenure, we made available about $175 million to the Memphis school system that we were not required to do,” he said. “But because my background is in education I felt we had to do it.”

Herenton later founded the W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools in Memphis and Atlanta; but two of the six schools have closed due to poor performance.

Today, the city’s budget doesn’t allot any funding to K-12 education and Herenton believes the city should do more. And, says Herenton, assistance should extend beyond city funding.

“The root cause is poverty, family disintegration, racism and classism. And until we begin to tackle that fundamentally, we will always have the difference in academic achievement in race and class,” he said. “It’s the ugly reality.”

Poverty abatement and crime reduction are high on his agenda. Additionally, his platform includes creating an “attractive business climate” to grow the city’s tax base, tackling juvenile justice reform, and growing minority-owned businesses. And to the degree his platform mirrors elements of the campaigns of any of his opponents, Herenton said he would employ tougher tactics to get the job done.

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Source: Black Press USA