Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Joshua Pretlow Darden (20 October 1903–26 October 1986), civic leader and mayor of Norfolk, was born in the Southampton County town of Franklin and was the son of Colgate Whitehead Darden, a farmer and businessman, and his first wife, Katharine Lawrence Pretlow Darden. His elder brother, Colgate Whitehead Darden Jr. (1897–1981), served as governor of Virginia during World War II.

Pretlow Darden, as he was usually known, attended Franklin public schools and worked during the summer before his senior year on a freighter sailing between the United States and England. He received a B.S. in business administration from the University of Virginia in 1926, began graduate work, but withdrew in 1927 to assist with the family farming and banking activities. Darden also worked briefly for a Norfolk bond house and at the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company's rayon plant near Richmond. In 1930 he became general manager of a Norfolk automobile dealership and eventually bought out his partners. His Colonial Chevrolet Company became the largest Chevrolet dealership in the region. Darden married Audrey Cecelia Hogan in Norfolk on 5 March 1932. Before her death on 23 November 1966, they had one son and one daughter.

In January 1943 Darden began Naval Air Corps training in Jacksonville, Florida, and then studied anti-submarine tactics in Rhode Island before being assigned to the Norfolk Naval Air Station. He was discharged as a lieutenant on 31 October 1945.

During World War II, Norfolk had acquired a reputation as a corrupt and inefficiently run city. By March 1946 Darden, along with John W. Twohy II, a Norfolk contractor, and Richard Dickson Cooke, a corporate attorney, had accepted invitations to run for the city council on a businessmen's reform slate, called the People's Ticket. They pledged that if elected they would select a competent city manager and not seek reelection after their four-year terms expired in order to free the council from partisan politics. In what the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch called "a vote for greater statesmanship, imagination and modernity in the Norfolk of 1946," on 11 June the largest number of voters in city history to that time elected the reformers over the incumbents by a wide margin. Darden received the largest number of votes among the nine candidates.

The three victors, a majority of the five-member council, took office on 2 September 1946 and elected Cooke president of the council and ex officio mayor. They hired one of the nation's leading city managers, Charles A. Harrell, from Schenectady, New York, and named a former marine general as the new police chief. They hired an urban development consultant to study the city's slums. His findings provided the basis for a successful application in 1949 for a federal Housing Act grant of $25 million, one of the first in the nation, to create 3,000 new low-rent housing units. The city also established the Norfolk Port Authority in 1948. On 15 February 1949 Cooke resigned and the council elected Darden as its president and ex officio mayor. By autumn 1950, when the reform councilmen concluded their terms and retired from office, the city government had created a framework for producing thousands of improved housing units, a safer and more appealing downtown, and significant economic expansion. Darden then began a twenty-year tenure on the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority board. He served as chair for the two years before his resignation in 1971.

Darden remained one of the most influential business and political leaders in Norfolk and often advised city leaders on matters of public policy. After the governor closed six Norfolk schools in September 1958 rather than permit them to be desegregated under court order, Darden joined Charles Lott Kaufman, an attorney, and Frank Batten, a newspaper publisher, in composing a statement urging the city council to abide by the court decisions and to preserve public education by promptly reopening the city schools. Having obtained the signatures of 100 of the city's business and professional leaders, they published the statement on 26 January 1959. The schools reopened early in February with seventeen African American students attending the city's white high schools. The Committee of 100, as it was called, received credit for helping ensure that the process was peaceful.

Darden's commitment to educational opportunities for black Virginians included support while mayor in 1950 for a new site for the Norfolk campus of Virginia State College. As a member of the board of visitors of Virginia State College (later University) from 1964 until 1969, he worked for independent status for the school's Norfolk Division, and when it was achieved in 1969 he began four years of service as a visitor of Norfolk State College (later University). Darden's work to obtain approval for campus expansion, student residences, and graduate-level instruction led the college's longtime president Lyman Beecher Brooks to write that "the name and work of Pretlow Darden stand as a testimonial to what a citizen can contribute and achieve in voluntary service to an institution."

Darden became president of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce in 1960, was named Norfolk's First Citizen in 1961, and chaired the 1962 Community Chest Campaign. He was a director of Virginia National Bank and a vice president of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. Throughout his career, associates praised his social consciousness, quiet demeanor, unselfishness, and ability to get to the core of an issue in an honest and straightforward manner. Joshua Pretlow Darden died of Alzheimer's disease in a Norfolk hospital on 26 October 1986 and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. In 1988 his family established the J. Pretlow Darden Professorship in the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia.

Sources Consulted:
Biography in Rogers Dey Whichard, ed., The History of Lower Tidewater Virginia (1959), 3:311–312; information provided by son, Joshua Pretlow Darden Jr. (2007, 2008), and Robert C. Nusbaum (2008); Marriage Register, Norfolk City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; feature articles in Commonwealth 27 (July 1960): 26–27 (portrait), and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 6 Nov. 1966, 8 Aug. 1971, 21 Dec. 1980; Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 24, 26 Mar. 1946, 16 Feb. 1949; Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, 7 May, 12 June 1946 (first quotation); Elizabeth Jacoway and David R. Colburn, eds., Southern Businessmen and Desegregation (1982), 98–101, 109110; Lyman Beecher Brooks, Upward: A History of Norfolk State University (1983), 65, 6768 (second quotation on 67); Thomas C. Parramore with Peter C. Stewart and Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries (1994), 348–354; obituaries and editorial tributes in Norfolk Ledger-Star, 27, 28 Oct. 1986, and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 27, 28 Oct. 1986; obituaries in Richmond News Leader, 27 Oct. 1986, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 28 Oct. 1986.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Stephen S. Mansfield.

How to cite this page:
Stephen S. Mansfield,"Joshua Pretlow Darden (1903–1986)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Darden_Joshua_Pretlow, accessed [today's date]).

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