The History of Our First African American Mayors

April 15, 2021

By Tann vom Hove,
Senior Fellow,
City Mayors Research*

Pierre Caliste Landry
One of the First Elected African American Mayors
Donaldsonville, LA

Black Americans have become instrumental in US local government December 2020: It is thought that America’s first elected black mayors were Pierre Caliste Landry from Donaldsonville in southern Louisiana and Stephen Swails from Kingstree, South Carolina. Both men were elected in 1868, the year the 14th amendment to the US Constitution was adopted. The amendment gave citizenship to all persons born or naturalised in the USA. Pierre Landry later served as a judge and tax collector and sat for the Republican Party in the Louisiana State Senate, while Stephen Swails also joined the Republican Party and later became a member of the US Electoral College. (The Republican Party of the 19th century was formed in 1854 as an anti- slavery party)

It took, however, another 100 years for an African American to be elected mayor of a large US city. In 1970, Newark (NJ) and Dayton (OH) both elected Black American Democrats as mayors.

In the last quarter of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st, African Americans increasingly became involved in all levels of local government. During the 1970s cities like Tallahassee, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington DC and New Orleans elected their first black mayors. By the beginning of the 21st century, following the arrivals of African American mayors in cities like Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Seattle, Denver, St Louis, Rochester, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, San Francisco and Houston, the elections of black Americans ceased to be newsworthy.

Today, more than one third of America’s top-100 cities are governed by African Americans, with many mayors being women. Among the best know are Lori Lightfoot (Chicago), London Breed (San Francisco), Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta) and Muriel Bowser (Washington DC). The first black woman mayor of a large US city was Jessie Rattley, who was elected Mayor of Newport News (Virginia) in 1986. She served four years.

Stephen Atkins Swails
One of the First Elected African American Mayors Kingstree, SC

The most recently elected African American mayor is Elia Jones of Ferguson (Missouri), the town which in August 2014 made the news when Michael Brown, a black unarmed 18-year-old , was shot several times and killed by a white police officer. The police officer was later judged to have acted in self-defense.

The vast majority of African American mayors belong to the Democratic Party. Research among 55 large US cities with black mayors shows that in July 2020 some 50 mayors were Democrats, four were Independents and only one was a member of the Republican Party. The findings by City Mayors Research also show that most current black Democratic mayors were preceded by other Democrats, although many of them were white Americans.

Political affiliations

Political affiliation of African American mayors in 54 large towns and cities
• Democratic Party: 50 mayors
• Republican Party; 1 mayor
• Independent: 4 mayors

Political affiliation of current mayor versus predecessor
• Democrat to Democrat: 45 mayors
• Democrat to Independent: 3 mayors
• Republican to Democrat: 5 mayors
• Republican to Independent: 1 mayor
• Republican to Republican: 1 mayor

Race/ethnicity of current mayor versus predecessor
• Black to Black: 22 mayors
• White to Black: 32 mayors
• Asian to Black: 1 mayor

Note: We will cover African American Female Mayors at a later Date

(Please note: City Mayors Research only looked at US cities that currently have black mayors. It is possible, indeed probable, that a number of cities with currently white mayors were previously governed by black mayors.)