Queen of the Queen City: Rita Wilson retiring after 16-plus years on Staunton City Council
Story by Chris Graham
She wasn’t trying to be Rosa Parks.
“We were just tired of the separate-but-equal thing. Because it certainly wasn’t separate-but-equal,” said Rita Wilson, who is retiring from Staunton City Council on June 30 after 16-plus years on the job, and who a generation ago made her first foray into public life by rather casually visiting the principal at Bessie Weller Elementary School to talk to him about enrolling her eldest daughters.
“I went to Bessie Weller like I didn’t know anything, and I went in, and all the white mothers were standing around, and the lady said, May I help you? And I said, I came to enroll my girls in school. And they said, Where do you live? And I said, On Jackson Street. And she said, Your children should go to T.C. Edmonds on Johnson Street. And I said, I think you’re mistaken, because my next-door neighbors go to this school, and if my next-door neighbors go here, my girls should go here, too,” Wilson said.
“So the principal said, Why don’t you go home and write a letter telling us why you want your children to go to a different school than the one they’re assigned to? And I said, I didn’t hear you ask anybody else to write a letter. He said, Well, I’m asking you,” Wilson said.
Nearly a decade had passed since the United States Supreme Court had handed down its decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case that had set about the process for desegregating schools – but Virginia, under Massive Resistance, was taking “all deliberate speed” to the echo of the whistle.
Wilson herself had attended Staunton’s all-black high school, Booker T. Washington High School – so she knew what she was saying when she talked about separate not being equal.
“None of the black schools in the city had a cafeteria,” Wilson said. “They had built that back part onto Booker T., and they were bringing the food over from what is A.R. Ware to feed them. And the other part of the school was T.C. Edmonds. And when T.C. Edmonds got full, instead of integrating the schools, they added some more onto Booker T., the new section, and the kids went to school in that section, and the high-school kids went in the old section.
“And Bessie Weller was relatively new then. So when I saw the conditions at the school, and the kids wanted to go to school with their friends, that’s what I did,” Wilson said.
“Nobody had a meeting or anything. But you heard, Oh, the Harrises put their kids in Beverley Manor. Oh, this one put their kids in Lee High. None of us were on a personal level with each other. It was just, Oh, they did it, too,” Wilson said.
“It’s different when you see your own kids having to go through it. When you see the neighbor’s kids going to this nice school, and my kids have no cafeteria, and they’re bringing in food from the white folks’ school, and they get everything secondhand, and it’s way below standard, and they’ve got a nice school right over here where the neighbors’ kids are going … Why? Why?”
Wilson is known to some in Staunton as the African American member of Staunton City Council. Implied in that statement is that Staunton’s African American population is powerful enough to do what is necessary to get one of its own elected to city council.
“Now, let me tell you something. How many black folks do you think there are in Staunton? About 10 percent. So how did I get elected four times? So I’m compelled to represent everybody,” said Wilson, who announced in February that she will not seek a fifth term on city council.
Wilson is the only African American woman to ever serve on the city council in Staunton. She was appointed to the council in 1991 to fill out the last six months of an unexpired term, then surprised everyone but herself and a few close friends and supporters by winning a full four-year term the following May.
“I think at the time Rita filled a gap that needed to be on there,” said former Staunton mayor John Avoli, who was a member of the city council that voted to appoint Wilson to the unexpired term, and later was elected mayor with the support of Wilson.
“What I appreciated a lot about her was that she brought a different perspective. We were all males on that council, and at times, how can you best say this, males sometimes have a tendency to be narrow-minded in their view of the city. She brought the perspective of the family and what the families were going through, along with an interest in the older population and children and the underprivileged,” Avoli said.
“The council relationships at the time – there was something of an internal war going on at the time. And of course, a lot of things were hard to get done because of some internal conflicts – and not agreeing, disagreeing. And one of the facts of life that you’ll learn yourself, hopefully, is that you’ll appreciate that you can agree to disagree. And at the end of the day, you’re still colleagues, and you’re still there for the same reason,” Avoli said.
That all sounds good now, but it wasn’t easy for Wilson back in the day.
“I caught my share of flak,” Wilson said, telling how she ruffled feathers early on in her tenure by raising issue with the plan of fellow city-council members to give a substantial monetary bonus to a group of higher-ups in City Hall who had done some extra work following the sudden resignation of the city manager.
“That didn’t make any sense to me. I mean, they were just doing their jobs,” said Wilson, who soon developed a reputation for working hard at her new job of city-council member.
“I don’t think she was respected as she should have been starting off. But she began to show them what she could do. And that when she suggested something, she meant to get it done,” said Ophie Kier, who served as Wilson’s campaign manager for each of her four runs for city council and is now running himself for a seat on the council in the May 6 city elections.
“She just started acting to make things happen,” Kier said. “She was instrumental in the Booker T. Washington Community Center not being sold, because at that time they did just want to get rid of the building. And because the neighborhood that she lived in was overlooked as far as street cleanup, she started bringing out everybody every spring and fall to do a community cleanup in the Johnson Street area,” Kier said.
“This is what she did. She showed people that everybody wants to live the same,” Kier said.
Avoli said Wilson’s work in the Johnson Street cleanup will be “her legacy.”
“When I look at that Johnson Street area, especially the work with Habitat for Humanity, I think everybody knew it was there, including myself. But it needed that little sparkplug, fireplug, that little explosion to say, Hey, guys, let’s look at this from a different perspective,” Avoli said. “I knew we had a problem there. Everybody knew it was there. It was filled with every nasty thing you could possibly imagine. And now you look at it, and you see, my gosh, Habitat is in there, and it’s filled with homes and families, and they’ve just cleaned the whole darn mess up.
“That may be the biggest part of her legacy, that she did draw attention to the need to do something about that neighborhood,” Avoli said.
Wilson herself feels that her work on the Johnson Street issue could be a double-edged sword for her.
“When I was working on the Johnson Street issue, I heard it from white folks. You’re a one-issue candidate. All you want to do is get Johnson Street fixed up. And I used to say, I’ve got diabetes. And I take care of my whole body, and I wash and clean up. But if I get a sore on my foot, that’s detrimental. I might lose my foot. So I’m going to take special care of my foot. And that’s the way I feel about this. Because it’s pulling down the community. It’s pulling away taxpayers’ dollars,” Wilson said.
Ask Wilson about her legacy, and she recalls a chat she had with a resident after a recent city-council meeting.
“I saw a lady downtown the other week, and she was at the council meeting, and hadn’t ever been down there before for anything. And I saw her, and she hadn’t said anything, and the meeting was almost over, and I said to her, Why did you come down here? Did you want to say something? And she said, There was something, but y’all just voted and went on. I sat here through the whole meeting, and now you’re almost done,” Wilson said.
“I said, This lady wants to speak. She didn’t want to make Baldwin Street one way. That’s what it was. That was a concern. So I hadn’t seen her there before, and she came for something. So I wanted her to be able to say something,” Wilson said.
“I saw her the next day, and she said, I would never come to another city-council meeting. She said, I don’t know how you do it. And she said, You are the only common person on that council. And I said, What do you mean, common? And she said, Like me. You pay attention. You asked me why I was even there. You were the only one who asked me,” Wilson said.
Wilson said part of her will miss city council – to the point where she has joked to long-time City Hall haunt Baldwin Jennings, who rarely misses council meetings, and opportunities to speak his mind on the issues of the day at the meetings, to “save me a seat, because we’re going to give them hell.”
But if she were to talk to Avoli about life after city council, she would find that it probably won’t be all that hard to let go.
“I made a determination to back out completely. I’ve not gotten involved in anything whatsoever at all,” Avoli said. “If someone asks me a question, I may give them an answer, but I think for me, me personally, and I can’t speak for anybody else, but when a new council or new mayor comes on board, it’s a new coach, you know? And you have to let them deal with that.
“Do I miss all of the extra time involved? No. Do I miss the people, do I miss my colleagues on council, the great staff that the city has? Yes. There’s no question. You can’t go into something like that for 16 years and not miss the relationships – not only here in Staunton, but the relationships in Richmond and Washington,” Avoli said.
“I’m sure Rita will go through some of those similar things. But by the same token, I call myself a recovering mayor. And I’m recovering nicely,” Avoli said.
Wilson, for her part, already seems to be heading toward that perspective, if she isn’t there already.
“I think there’s two ways of looking at. I think it’s really sad that I’m stepping down. And I’ve shed some tears, because it’s such a part of my life. And I’m thinking, Oh, what am I going to do?” Wilson said.
“But then I’m thinking – because people think you only go to two meetings a month, but Monday night I was at a meeting, yesterday at two o’clock I had a meeting with the city manager, because he meets with the council members before the meetings on Thursday night, and there was a nominations-committee meeting yesterday, tomorrow night I have the council meeting. There’s meetings all the time. And if you serve as the liaison to other committees, there’s always something. And this phone rings all the time. Somebody’s always disagreeing with something.
“I like to deal with everything, even if I have to say, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what I can do to help. But I like to at least get back to people. But on the other hand, I think it will be a relief,” Wilson said.