Last week I highlighted a few notable individuals who served as the first Mayor(s) and City Manager in Roanoke. This week I want to highlight a bit of the diversity seen in the City’s leadership over the years.
First African-American Mayor
Noel C. Taylor, a well-known Mayor, was the first African American elected Mayor. Elected in 1976 (he had served in 1975 after being appointed Mayor following Mayor Roy Webber’s death), Mayor Taylor served longer as Mayor than any other in the City’s history. First elected to City Council in 1970 (also the first African American elected to Council), he served a total of 22 years, with 17 as Mayor. He was raised in Bedford County, served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and earned degrees from Bluefield State College, Virginia Seminary and College, and New York University.
Mayor Taylor served as a teacher, an elementary school principal, and pastor at three churches, most notably High Street Baptist Church, where he served 37 years until his death in 1998. He was influential in the civil rights movement in Roanoke. The Municipal Building and the Noel C Taylor Learning Center are named in his honor.
A First for Women
Roanoke City Council appointed Darlene Burcham as City Manager in 1999, making her the first woman to serve in that capacity. Prior to arriving in Roanoke, Ms. Burcham had served in leadership roles in Norfolk, James City County, and Hampton. Serving a total of 10 years in Roanoke, Ms. Burcham nurtured the early stages of development for what is today known as the Innovation Corridor; helped negotiate the deal that resulted in the formation of the Western Virginia Water Authority; supported the early stages of downtown redevelopment; promoted the extensive greenway system we now enjoy; and spearheaded the renovation of Elmwood Park, including the addition of the Elmwood Amphitheater.
Following her departure from Roanoke, Ms. Burcham served as Town Manager for the Town of Clifton Forge, a position she will retire from this year after helping strengthen Clifton Forge’s presence in the region and stimulating a community revitalization fueled by greenways, arts, and entertainment venues. Her daughters have followed her, assuming leadership roles—one as an administrator in Roanoke City Public Schools, the other herself serving as the first female City Manager in Hampton.
Roanoke’s diversity does not stop with these two positions. The City has been fortunate to have the leadership of women as the City Clerk, Clerk of the Circuit Court, and City Sheriff. In addition, the Superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools and several other leadership positions have, over the years, been held by women. Indeed, Roanoke City Council has included women since 1953 beginning with Ms. Mary C. Pickett, and today women make up the majority of the Council!
We are a diverse community, and we have and continue to have diverse leadership—and we are stronger for it. The more varied experiences we can bring into leadership roles, the better we can understand our community and deliver the services that are needed to better us all.
-- Bob Cowell