Unita Blackwell (1933-2019)

Unita Blackwell
Courtesy Washington University Libraries

Unita Blackwell, a civil rights activist and the first black female mayor in the state of Mississippi, was born the daughter of sharecropping parents in Coahoma County, Mississippi on March 18, 1933. She worked throughout the civil rights era urging and recruiting blacks to register to vote, while holding positions in numerous organizations to fight for black civil rights in the United States.

Blackwell began her education by attending a school in West Helena, Arkansas, because of the lack of educational opportunities for African Americans in Mississippi.  She received an eighth grade education and then joined her parents as sharecroppers. In the early 1960s, with determination and willfulness, she chopped cotton for $3 per day while she patiently began her work in civil rights.

By 1964, Blackwell was teaching Sunday School at a church. When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) visited her hometown of Mayersville, Mississippi, Blackwell signed up to be a field worker.  Her assignment was to persuade her neighbors to register and vote.

The very same year, Blackwell became a prominent participant in Freedom Summer, the massive effort by civil rights activists to register black voters across the state.  She also was selected a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegate and traveled with other delegates to the Democratic National Convention in New Jersey to plead its case to be seated to represent Mississippi.  Although the Convention failed to accommodate the MFDP, Blackwell continued her civil rights work.  By 1967 she was a Community Development Specialist in Mississippi for the National Council of Negro Women.

In 1976, Blackwell’s decade long activism in voter registration and other civil rights issues paid off when she ran for and won the position of Mayor of Mayersville, a Mississippi River town of 1,635 residents. Upon taking office, Unita Blackwell became the first black woman to serve as mayor in the entire state.

As mayor, Blackwell led the effort to pave streets and install street lights and sewers in the black section of Mayersville.  She also spoke out on poor housing conditions which disproportionately affected her constituents.  In 1979, Blackwell was chosen to participate in the national Energy Summit organized by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Maryland.  Blackwell was elected Chair of the National Conference of Black Mayors in 1989.

Despite beginning her adult life with an eighth grade education, Blackwell in 1983 received a master’s degree in Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She was also a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship in 1992.  Blackwell’s autobiography, Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom, was released in 2006.

Unita Blackwell died in Biloxi, Mississippi on May 13, 2019, after a long battle with dementia. She was 86.