A Brief History
On January 2, 1991, Sharon Pratt Kelly became the first African American woman mayor of a large American city when she was sworn in as mayor of Washington, D.C. Only the third mayor of our nation’s capital, Kelly served until succeeded by Marion Barry on January 2, 1995. In fact, it was the same Marion Barry that Pratt had succeeded as mayor herself!
Born in the capital in 1944, Sharon went on to graduate from Howard University and continued her education there until she earned her Juris Doctor degree in 1968. While at Howard, she met and married Arrington Dixon in 1966, divorcing in 1982. It was under the last name of Dixon that Kelly was elected and sworn in as mayor, although she had remarried in December of 1991 to James Kelly (divorced 1999). She served as Sharon Pratt Kelly, and after her second divorce reverted to he maiden name of Pratt.
The daughter of a D.C. Superior Court judge, Sharon was an honor student and a baseball player in school. She became active in politics after graduation from college, in the Democratic Party, including a stint (1985-1989) as the Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Sharon had already declared her intention to challenge incumbent Washington mayor Barry in 1988 for the 1990 election, when the country was shocked by Barry’s arrest for smoking crack cocaine with prostitutes and dropped out of the election in 1990.
Running against a former police chief as the Republican nominee, Pratt easily won the 1990 mayoral election. While in office Pratt campaigned for Washington, D.C. to become a state, and resisted efforts by the owners of the Redskins (of the NFL) to build a taxpayer funded stadium, resulting in the ‘Skins moving out of the city. (The team is still known as The Washington Redskins although they now play in Maryland.) Her tenure was marred by severe budget deficits, although she enjoyed a good relationship with Congress and secured millions of dollars for the city. Prat was criticized for wasting public money on thousands of dollars’ worth of make-up (for television appearances) on herself. The fiscal crisis finally resulted in Congress taking control of the D.C. budget, ruining Pratt’s political reputation. When the time came for the 1994 primary election Pratt came in a disappointing 3rd among Democrats. Marion Barry was reelected to his former post despite the scandal that ruined his first term.
In 2003, Pratt managed to land a lucrative, $235,000 contract with the District to act as liaison between the US Department of Homeland Security and the D.C. Department of Health. Pratt opened a new doorway for African American women and is a living icon in the history of African American women in American politics.
(Marion Barry continued a successful political career, later marred by a 2005 arrest for misdemeanor tax evasion and for failing drug tests (cocaine and marijuana). Since those troubles, Barry had various medical problems and continued to fail to file tax returns, was arrested for drunk driving and other traffic offenses, was arrested for stalking a woman, and was accused of a conflict of interest regarding a public contract. He died in 2014 at the age of 78.)
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For more information, please see…
Gandhi, Jenny. “Sharon Pratt: First African American Female Mayor.” Prezi.com. https://prezi.com/rdxzhxayzjsw/sharon-pratt-first-african-american-female-mayor/ (accessed 31 December 2017).
Ragland, James. “For Kelly, 4 Years of Tough Terrain, The Washington Post.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A99450-1994Sep7.html (accessed 31 December 2017).