Jessie Menifield Rattley

(May 4, 1929–March 2, 2001)
Newport News
Mayor and Social Activist

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Jessie Menifield Rattley (May 4, 1929–March 2, 2001) worked and lived in Newport News all of her adult life. After graduating from Hampton Institute (later Hampton University), she taught in the public schools, served as a hospital administrator, and in 1952 founded the Peninsula Business College to help African Americans enter the business world. Active in educational, religious, and civic organizations, Rattley advocated community improvements and increased opportunities for African Americans.

In 1970 Rattley became the first woman and first African American elected to the city council. She won reelection four times, serving for twenty years, the last four as the city's mayor. She championed economic and educational opportunities for the city's poor and black residents, engaging in spirited debates with her political opponents and sometimes even with her allies. Rattley cooperated with other municipal officials as a member of the Virginia Municipal League, of which she became president in 1978, and the National League of Cities, of which she became president the following year.

Rattley and other reformers wrested control of the Democratic Party away from conservative white men and formed a biracial coalition to make the party more progressive and inclusive. An influential delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1976, she became an informal advisor on urban affairs to President Jimmy Carter and advocated reform of federal urban and social policy.

After her final term on city council, Rattley spent a year as a fellow at the Institute of Politics of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and she also taught political science at Hampton University. In November 2003 the council voted to rename the city hall in her honor.