Champion of consensus and
Committed to equality
Shortly after the news of his death began spreading around Hampton Roads, apart from recalling their friendship and professional ties, residents from all corners of the region began crafting words to describe William “Bill” Ward’s Legacy.
Ward, first African American elected mayor in the city of Chesapeake, Virginia, died July 10th in a city hospital, according to his family and city officials.
He was a History Professor at Norfolk State University before being elected to Chesapeake City Council in 1978, and mayor in 1990 where he had the longest tenure in that role in the city’s history.
Dr. Ward was an NSU Professor for over 30 years, and he served also as Chairman of the NSU Department of History. At NSU, he influenced several of the school’s most devoted and ardent educators. Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander is a Professor of History and Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at NSU, and she said Dr. Ward was a friend of the NSU family. “When I arrived in 1992, he was teaching history and lured me into a project where he was designing the proper way in the classroom to deliver lectures for African American History,” she said.
Alexander said that Ward’s efforts were inspired by restless NSU students who were clamoring for the university to teach Black History and Culture. “He thought it was very important that an HBCU be able to teach students their history and their legacy,” said Dr. Alexander. “By educating them about their history, it enabled them to be future leaders.”
“I first met him in the faculty cafeteria on campus, and we ate lunch together,” said Dr. Charles Ford, who became a Professor of History at NSU shortly after Ward was elected mayor. “I asked him how he juggled being a professor and an elected official. His civility and kindness were evident then as he patiently answered my questions — coming from the most junior of his colleagues.”
Ford, a leader in the local gay rights community, described Ward as a “great teacher”, having worked in the local public schools before he received his Ph.D. He connected with his students who frequently came back long after graduation to visit and to thank him.
As NSU Faculty Senate President, Ford said Ward “stood up for his colleagues in the difficult transition period that overlapped the tenures of President Lymon Beecher Brooks and Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, when there were tensions between the old and new administrative leaders.
As Chair of the Black History Month Committee, Ford said, Ward brought many prominent people to the NSU campus, “making history as well as relaying it.” Ford said Ward “saved Dr. Marie McDemmond, NSU’s newly installed President, from an academic palace coup.” He rallied support for her after she had put in reforms and personnel who were angered over some of the changes she proposed, including an end to open-admissions; outsourcing printing and janitorial services; updating the accounting practices; and raising publishing expectations for faculty.
Public Service in Chesapeake
The city of Chesapeake is just 55-years-old, created when the rural community of South Norfolk and Norfolk County merged. State Senator Lionell Spruill represents a portion of Chesapeake now and Norfolk. He had a tenure on Chesapeake City Council when Ward was a member and mayor, before Spruill was elected to the House of Delegates.
In his 20s at the time, Spruill recalls South Norfolk, which was mostly rural and Black, as it merged with Norfolk County, a White enclave, to create the city of Chesapeake in 1963.
After the two merged, the South Norfolk area complained its residents were being excluded from acquiring positions on city boards and commissions in the late 60s and 70s. “Ward came along and helped build the bridges between the leaders of those communities, along with Great Bridge, to help move the city forward in the 1960s,” said Spruill. “Bill knew how to bring Democrats and Republicans together. He made them realize they had interests in common. He showed how they could compromise to get something so both sides got something.”
Dr. Ward was one of the founders of Chesapeake Forward and also the President of the Chesapeake Men for Progress which help spur political and economic progress in that city. Ward’s interest in History and Politics enabled him to interact with men like Dr. Hugo Owens, dentist and long time civil rights activist in Portsmouth and then Chesapeake. In 1970 Ward had a hand in the strategy and mechanics to help Owens and William P. Clarke become the first two Blacks elected to the Chesapeake City Council.
Vince Carpenter of Chesapeake Financial Services first encountered Ward in 1978, as campaign operatives were dropping leaflets in his neighborhood when Ward first secured a seat on council. In 1983, Carpenter recalled marching with Bishop Levis Willis and Ward and Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in Norfolk to protest Norfolk’s dismantling of the desegregation of its public schools.
The next year Jackson launched his campaign for President and Ward was a key local organizer of the effort. Carpenter, then in his early 20s, said, “That got me hooked, on politics and civic activism. I followed his career until he was elected vice mayor and then mayor. The city began moving.”
Carpenter and others interviewed for this article said they watched as then Mayor Ward began traveling around the country and to parts of Asia, Africa and Europe to recruit companies like Volvo and Panasonic to Chesapeake. Carpenter said Ward also helped expand minority inclusion in the city’s procurement system.
Due to the Cronson decision against affirmative action in public state and local contracts, the federal courts curbed such efforts. But the local NAACP convinced Ward to lobby the council to adopt the NAACP-inspired ‘Fair Share’ agreement.
Designed by then NAACP President March Cromuel, a strong Ward ally, and other leaders, their effort nudged the Mayor and council to include minority firms in securing a portion of the city’s contracts.
Carpenter and others recalled how Ward fought for the construction of city venues such as the Chesapeake Conference Center. He also lobbied for a cultural arts venue. A portion of the conference center bears his name. Support is growing for the entire conference center to be named for him. “When he traveled to conferences and conventions where other mayors attended, he knew everybody was conveying pride and energy in their city,” said Carpenter. “He wanted that for Chesapeake.
“He befriended Maynard Jackson, the powerful mayor of Atlanta, who used political skills to build what we see today. That is what he wanted for Chesapeake . He got a lot done. But there were many things he did not. We have to complete them for him.”
Ward was born Lunenburg County and was raised in Keysville, a town in Charlotte County, Virginia.
Dr. Ward and his wife Rose moved to Chesapeake in 1963. At that time, a poll tax and literacy tests were used to restrict full African American participation in the city’s political system, a common practice in the South. Ward was among those who vowed to change the status quo.
Remembering Dr. Ward
Current councilmember, Dr. Ella Ward (no relation) has served 12 years. She followed Willa Bazemore as the second African American woman to sit on Chesapeake’s City Council.
A decade later Councilwoman Ward met Dr. Bill Ward when she was leading an effort to start a Civic League in the Camelot section of the city where she lived. She sat on Chesapeake School Board before ascending to council.
“He helped the first Black members (of council) and many others who followed them to get on council,” said Dr. Ella Ward. “He had the skills, sense of history and courage to encourage me and others to seek their political career. He did not just tell you….he helped you with reaching voters, advertising and strategy.”
On the night Kenneth C. Alexander made history by becoming Norfolk’s first Black mayor, the first person who called him was Bill Ward. Alexander said he knew Ward most of his life through Ward’s wife, who was a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in South Norfolk.
“When he called that night he said he did not want to give advice or ideas on being Mayor,” said Alexander. “But he did say listen to your city manager and attorney everyday. If you choose them right, they will keep you from straight. But you must always study and be prepared.”
“Chesapeake took off when Ward was mayor,” said Alexander. “He traveled the world to bring business. He helped build the various subdivisions of that city. They owe a lot to his work and vision.”
Meeting him once, Joe Dillard, one of the youngest NAACP Presidents in the nation, said “Ward certainly left a legendary impact… accomplished so much in a conservative city… how tactful and strong he was in political policy making.”
Glenda “Paris” Murray-Kelly, a writer and activist, recalls meeting Ward when she was in high school in 1973. Later she said when “I served as Executive Coordinator for the Broad Lawn and South Hill Unions; he was a our biggest fan.” She recently bestowed the MLK Ambassadors for Service on Ward during a community program.
“I did not work any projects with him,” said Norfolk resident and Former School Board
member Billy Cook. “But his legacy to me and others, I believe, is…(an) example of how he served. He served quietly with power of influence that got meaningful things done that matter to those he served.”
Nathan Richardson first met Dr. Ward in 2015 at the Africana Music Festival in Virginia Beach. He does an historic interpretation of Frederick Douglass. “If I could think of a word to describe him, it would be ‘engaged.’ Dr. Ward was not just present, he was aware and engaged in the moment’s activity and the people involved. This is an unusual quality for politicians who are often present but not really engaged.”
He continued, “Oddly enough my first real one on one with Dr. Ward was at the 2015 Africana Festival where I was portraying Frederick Douglass. Dr. Ward entered my tent and pull up a chair right in front of Douglass and started asking questions. After about 10 minutes of dialogue, Dr. Ward leaned back and said, ‘Ok, Mr. Douglass, you seem to be the real deal.’
“Not more than a month later, I received an invitation to perform during Black History Month at NSU. Of course, Dr. Ward was there for that portrayal of Douglass. As ever, he was engaged and had questions. He was not a man just going through the motions.
Tristan Breaux was the youngest Local NAACP President, based in Norfolk before he moved to Washington, D.C. to become a District Director at the U.S. House of Representatives. Breaux is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, the fraternity to which Dr. Ward was a committed member.
“It was his influence, as a former Polemarch of the Norfolk (VA) Alumni Chapter that encouraged me to pledge Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.” During Dr. Ward’s memorial wake held at the Chesapeake Conference Center last week, the area’s Kappa brothers turned out to say their farewells. Prior to the public’s viewing of the body, the fraternity men said their own goodbye in a special ceremony.
Breaux said, “My first encounter with Dr. Bill Ward was in Brown Hall, on the campus of Norfolk State University. As a student, he took me to the side and told me that my tie didn’t match my suit. It was from that day, he would become my role model and mentor. Dr. Ward encouraged me to get involved in politics on all levels, advance civic engagement and fight for civil/human rights.
“I strive every day to walk in his footsteps with a soft voice, a strong sense of moral judgement, a commitment to political compassion and a gentleman
demeanor (as he did) to everyone he came in contact with. It is true that he never met a stranger.”
Apart from his academic and civic interests, Ward was a highly regarded member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., and that is how George and Ward joined forces in the early 1970s.
As mayor, Dr. Ward appointed Reed as the city’s representative on the community action agency STOP, Inc. board. Both worked the hallways of power in Richmond as Ward lobbied for NSU and Reed for STOP, Inc. They two joined forces to found the Chesapeake Men For Progress
Reed said Ward was generous with more than his time and talents, for he has two endowed scholarships bearing his name at NSU. Reed said Ward long advocated for the city to build a facility large enough to house high school graduation exercises in Chesapeake and not venues in Norfolk.
“I watched him as he ran for council, became mayor, and worked to transform Chesapeake from a rural to suburban community,” said Reed, a former educator with Norfolk Public Schools. “He was a historian, persuasive, well-traveled and believed in inclusion because he was a very special person.”
Dr. William Ward was funeralized in a public service at the Chesapeake Conference Center on Saturday, July 14, and a private family service on Monday July 16. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Rose Ward; son Michael R. Ward (Katia); daughter Dr. Michelle Ward Woodhouse (Terry); one grandchild, Skylar Rose Woodhouse; and a host of relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
By Leonard E. Colvin