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Notable Virginia Women -  Jesse Menifield Rattley (19292001)


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One of many Virginia women who responded to changed conditions and made new opportunities for community service and leadership during the final decades of the twentieth century, Jesse Menifield Rattley (19292001) was the first African American and the first woman ever elected to the Newport News City Council and also the first African American and the first woman ever elected mayor of that city, to be president of the Virginia League of Municipalities, and to be elected president of the National League of Cities. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 4 May 1929, she worked and lived in Newport News all of her adult life. 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.

Rattley entered public life when African Americans in Virginia were becoming influential in politics for the first time since Reconstruction. In 1970 she won election to the city council and was reelected four times, serving for twenty years, the last four as the city's mayor. She fearlessly and skillfully 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 entered actively into cooperation with other municipal officials in Virginia 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.

Forging mutually beneficial alliances with other reformers, Rattley and others like her wrested control of the Democratic Party away from conservative white men and formed a biracial coalition of men and women who made 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. She used her political influence to advocate 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 politics for a decade at Hampton University. Following her death from cancer on 2 March 2001, her body lay in state in the Newport News City Council Chamber before burial. In November 2003 the council voted to rename the city hall in her honor.