Herenton, Willie W. 1940–
Willie W. Herenton 1940–
Mayor of Memphis
In 1991, Willie W. Herenton made history when he was elected mayor of Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis—the city where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968—had never previously elected an African American mayor. According to an article about Herenton in Ebony magazine, “His victory has gone a long way toward changing the long-standing view of Memphis as ‘a backward, backwater, riverboat town’ whose black residents were often described as not sophisticated enough to unite behind one black candidate.”
As mayor, Herenton promised to bring about a new era of racial cooperation and economic progress. “This is truly the dawn of a new era, an era that will move this city toward unprecedented unity and prosperity for all our city,” he told Ebony. “We are going to reach new plateaus in human understanding; we’re going to experience tremendous economic growth, and we’re going to change the national image of this city.” Seven years after Herenton was elected, Jonathan Scott, writing in the Memphis Business Journal, praised him as a “consummate politician” and “chief lobbyist for the city,” while also working “to address those social and economic issues too long ignored by others, such as inner city revi-talization, affordable housing, and minority business development.”
Herenton was born on April 23, 1940 in Memphis. His parents separated when he was a child, and he and his sister were raised by his mother and grandmother. The family was poor, and as a young man Herenton helped to support the family by chopping and picking cotton. Initially, he had hoped to become a professional boxer like his idols, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. While Herenton later became a Golden Gloves champion, he decided to give up boxing to pursue a career in education.
After graduating from high school, Herenton worked his way through LeMoyne College in Memphis, earning a B.A. in 1963. Later that year, he became an elementary school teacher in the Memphis City School System. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his graduate studies, earning an M.A. from Memphis State University in 1966. In 1967, at the age of 28, Herenton became the
At a Glance…
Born Willie W. Herenton, April 23, 1940, in Mem phis, TN; married Ida Jones; children: Errol, Rodney, and Andrea. Education: LeMoyne-Owen College, B.S., 1963; Memphis State University, M.A., 1966; Southern Illinois University, Ph.D, 1971.
Career: Memphis City School System, elementary school teacher, 1963–67, elementary school principal, 1967–73, deputy superintendent, 1974–78, superintendent, 1979–92; City of Memphis, mayor, 1992-.
Addresses: Home— Memphis, TN. Office — Mayor, City of Memphis, 125 Mid-America Mall, Ste. 200, Memphis, TN.
youngest elementary school principal in Memphis. In addition to his administrative duties, he also worked toward a PhD from Southern Illinois University, a goal he achieved in 1971. From 1973 to 1974, Herenton was a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1974, Herenton became deputy superintendent of the Memphis City School System. Five years later, he was appointed superintendent, becoming the first African American to hold this position. In both 1980 and 1984, Executive Educator Journal named Herenton as one of the top 100 school administrators in the United States and Canada. In 1988, he was given a Horatio Alger Award, in recognition of his dedication to community leadership, individual initiative, and commitment to excellence. According to the Horatio Alger Award’s website, Herenton was “a role model for more than 100,000 youths in his system, the majority of whom are black. Herenton is seen as a symbol of what they can achieve.”
The following year, Herenton established a pioneering program that permitted seven inner-city schools to close, then reopen with hand-picked staffs and greater autonomy. Before the pilot program began, some of the schools had annual teacher turnover rates of 50 percent. By the end of the program’s third year, this figure had dropped dramatically. Herenton’s innovative program won national attention.
In 1991, after 12 years as school superintendent, Herenton announced that he would run for mayor of Memphis. Although almost 60 percent of the city’s 645,000 residents are African American, Memphis had not previously elected an African American mayor, unlike other southern cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama. For this election, various African American groups pulled together, holding neighborhood summit meetings and organizing the first African American People’s Convention in April of 1991. The 5,000 delegates overwhelmingly nominated Herenton as the consensus candidate for the African American community.
On October 3, 1991, the day of the election, there was a record turnout among African American voters. Her-enton managed to defeat nine-year incumbent Richard Hackett by a mere 142 votes—the closest election for mayor in the city’s history. “As I travel across this city, I see black folks with their heads held high,” Herenton was quoted as saying in Ebony. “There’s a new look. A new talk of self-esteem, and that’s what makes me feel good.” Herenton pledged to fight racism and poverty, while encouraging tourism and exploring new initiatives in crime prevention, education, and housing.
In 1995, Herenton announced that he would run for reelection. In his campaign, he touted his accomplishments as mayor: the city’s improved financial position, the recruitment of several major companies to the city, new and renovated housing for low-income residents, downtown redevelopment, and improved race relations. As the election approached, a second term for Herenton seemed assured. According to a poll by the Commercial Appeal (Memphis), held a few weeks before the election, three out of four Memphis residents approved of his job performance. “The big uncertainty about the Oct. 5 election: What percentage of registered voters will vote?” Susan Adler Thorp wrote in the Commercial Appeal. “The big certainty: Mayor W.W. Herenton will be re-elected.” On election day, Herenton won 74 percent of the vote—including a large percentage of white voters— and soundly defeated his three opponents.
In his second term, Herenton continued his struggle to bring economic investment into the city. “For the past two years, we’ve experienced $1 billion in capital investment and about 10,000 new jobs have been created annually. So Memphis has a bustling economy,” Herenton told Jonathan Scott of the Memphis Business Journal in 1998. Still, Herenton told Scott, he was concerned about more than just economic issues. “We’ve made some gains, but we still have a long way to go,” he was quoted as saying in the Memphis Business Journal. “While the economic growth of the city has been moving forward, I’m also concerned about quality of life issues such as housing, crime, and education.” Herenton has fought to bring a permanent Grammy Award museum to Memphis, and to revitalize the deteriorating neighborhoods near its historic downtown.
In 1999, Herenton declared that he would seek a third term as mayor. This time, he was challenged by Joe Ford, a member of a well-known political family in Memphis, as well as 13 other opponents. Blake Fontenay, writing in The Commercial Appeal, described the run-up to the election as “one of most contentious and expensive campaigns in the city’s history.” Herenton managed to win 46 percent of the vote, 20 percentage points more than Ford, his closest competitor. According to an editorial published in the Commercial Appeal, “Mayor Willie Herenton’s impressive—and surprisingly easy—re-election victory has provided a solid foundation on which he can plan his third term, as well as an encouraging expression of solidarity among Memphis voters. Herenton assembled a winning coalition that was not limited by geography, race, political party or demographics.”
Herenton has gained a reputation as a tough negotiator, who puts the needs of his city first. “I view myself as being desirous of working harmoniously with all government officials as long as they do the right thing,” he was quoted as saying in the Memphis Business Journal. “I will never compromise on what is in the best interest of this city just to get along….”
Herenton has received numerous awards for outstanding public service, including honorary doctorates from Rhodes College and Christian Brothers College. He has served on several corporate boards, including Promus Companies and First Tennessee National Corporation. He has also served on the National Board of Directors of the Urban League, Junior Achievement, and the National Executive Board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He has devoted time to many civic and service organizations such as March of Dimes, United Way, the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts and the Economic Club of Memphis. Herenton is divorced, and has three children, Errol, Rodney, and Andrea.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis), Oct. 8,1999; Oct. 10, 1999; Oct. 19, 1999; Oct. 24,1999; Oct. 6,1995; Oct. 5, 1995; Oct. 2, 1995; Sept. 24,1995; Sept. 3, 1995.
Ebony, March 1992, p. 106.
Memphis Business Journal, March 9, 1998; June 1, 1998.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the mayor’s office, City of Memphis.
"Herenton, Willie W. 1940–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/herenton-willie-w-1940
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