Former Gov. Wilder: ‘I did the best I could with what I had’

Wilder reflects on the past while also giving his opinion on current events
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 3:59 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2023 at 6:35 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder continues to make political history.

Wilder is a son of Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood and the grandson of James and Agnes - two slaves who toiled on a Goochland County plantation.

When he was born in 1931, no one could have guessed he would grow up to become America’s first African American governor and the commonwealth’s most influential politician of the 20th century.

Now at 92, Wilder has an opinion on most current events.

“Whites don’t like it, Blacks don’t like it and no one likes it, except those who benefit them from that answer,” Wilder said about the lack of transparency in the deal that sent many of Richmond’s confederate statues to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center.

He suggested that it’s no place for relics of the Civil War.

Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder sits down for an interview with NBC12. Wilder was America’s...
Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder sits down for an interview with NBC12. Wilder was America’s first African American governor.(WWBT)

While Wilder doesn’t like talking about the past much, his historic and colorful resume is hard to ignore.

Wilder attended Virginia Union University. After college, he was drafted into the Army, where he volunteered for combat. In 1953, at the famous Battle of Pork Chop Hill, Sgt. Wilder and two other soldiers found themselves cut off from their unit and were about to become prisoners. Wilder turned the tables on the enemy by bluffing, convincing 19 North Korean soldiers to surrender, a move that won him the Bronze Star.

After the war, he worked at the state toxicology lab, saving enough money to put himself through law school at Howard University.

Soon after, he had a successful law practice and then a call to public service: first in the state senate. In 1986, he was elected lieutenant governor, becoming the first African American to hold statewide office in Virginia.

In 1989, he won the governor’s mansion, becoming the first African American governor in the country.

Doug Wilder delivers a speech after being sworn in as governor.
Doug Wilder delivers a speech after being sworn in as governor.(WWBT/file)

Along the way, Wilder became well known as someone who consistently put people over party, something in today’s divisive political climate he fears most politicians are no longer willing to do.

“I am very concerned that the nation, not just here in Virginia, is headed towards us and them, and that’s not good,” Wilder said.

Crossing the aisle wasn’t always easy. Case in point, in the early 1970s, Republican Gov. Linwood Holten wanted to create a cabinet system so he could appoint various secretaries to streamline government and save money. Democrats, however, hated the idea except for one.

“When that vote came about, I cast the tie-breaking vote against leaders of my own party - and they thought it was the worst thing in the world! ‘You voted with him?’” Wilder recalled.

“I said yes, ‘I’m voting with him, because I happen to believe in it,’” he said.

The name “L. Douglas Wilder” is indelibly etched on the city of Richmond and likely will be for generations to come.

There is the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Wilder Library at his alma mater (Virginia Union) and a building named in his honor at Virginia State.

While the recognition is certainly a source of pride, it’s not something he thinks about much.

When asked how he thinks he’ll be remembered, Wilder says he doesn’t give it much thought.

“The only thing I’d like to be remembered for is that I did the best I could with what I had,” he said. “That’s all I would like to be remembered for. And I encourage most people, particularly young people, do the best you can with what you got.”