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Onzlee Ware, first Black state legislator in Western Virginia, remembered

Rebecca Barnabi
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Western Virginia’s first Black legislator, Onzlee Ware, died early Sunday morning at age 70 after a brief battle with cancer.

Ware, who was born in North Carolina, was one of the few Black legislators to represent a majority white district in the Commonwealth.

While attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro in September 1975, he was arrested and charged with possession of heroin and marijuana. The charges were dismissed as part of a deal for him to become a police informant. Ware said it was a “wake-up call from God.”

When his role as an informant was revealed in court a year later, he was shot and critically wounded the next day. He later lost his left leg.

Augusta County Clerk of the Circuit Court R. Steven Landes served with Ware when he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and House Appropriations Committee.

“He was a very dedicated public servant, both in the General Assembly, and as a Judge. Onzlee was a strong advocate for those he represented in the Roanoke Valley, and especially those who sometimes did not have a voice in the public square. I remember Onzlee to be a friend to all no matter their circumstance, political party or background. He was exactly the type of public servant and individual we are sorely missing in today’s society. It was my honor and privilege to have served with him, and to have known him. He made his community and Virginia a better place because of his service,” Landes said.

Ware came to Roanoke in the 1980s, and worked for the Boy Scouts. He became active in Democratic politics and well known in the 1990s as an organizer of Black voters. In 2003, a seat came open in the House of Delegates, and Ware won the Democratic primary by 56 percent.

He resigned from the House of Delegates in November 2013, then was chief judge for Roanoke County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Virginia’s Judicial District 23. 

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.