This year marks the 30th anniversary of the moment when several of Valdosta’s black residents took action to ensure the city’s African-American population would have more equitable representation in Valdosta and Lowndes County’s seats of government.
Last week, The Times met with a handful of the architects who led to Valdosta’s move from being an at-large system to the current system of districts. Dr. Willie Houseal, Tony Daniels, Wanda Denson, and Lewis Gordon were among several people who initiated the efforts to change the system in 1983.
Gordon led the Valdosta NAACP chapter during this era. — was also involved in the NAACP and began noticing the inequity in the city’s representation. Through conversations with Daniels, Iris Dubard and others in the early 1980s, they realized their individual difficulties were not personal but rather social. Based on this new understanding, they created the Winnersville Coalition Consultants, with the mission of acting “as vanguards toward correcting some of the ills of our community,” — notes in “The Power of Positive Self-Esteem,” a book which is part memoir, part self-help primer.
“The organization’s first mission was to conduct research on the political structure to determine if something could be done about modern day taxation without representation,” Houseal writes. “This problem was obvious because there were approximately 40 percent minority/black residents living in Valdosta. However, there were no minority/black representatives on the City Council, (Lowndes) County Commission, nor the boards of education on the city or county level.”
There had been the exception of Ruth Council and Barron, as well as a couple of appointments to various boards, but otherwise, no equitable representation for the black community, say —, Denson, Daniels and Gordon.
The southside fire station issue edged the Winnersville Coalition, the local NAACP and other individuals from discussing concerns to acting upon them.
Houseal mentions presenting to City Council a study regarding the southside fire station’s importance. They were joined by other groups: Citizens Awareness, the Ministerial Alliance, the Black Citizens Action Group, etc. But Houseal credits Georgia Legal Services as providing the pivotal support in creating political change.
Georgia Legal Services helped shape the federal court case that eventually became plaintiffs Lowndes County Chapter of the NAACP, Winnersville Coalition Consultants, Jeffrey R. Perry, Wanda Denson, Robert L. Banks, Onnie Phillips, John Carter and Anna M. Tyson vs. Valdosta Board of Elections and the Valdosta City Council.
The suit claimed the at-large system of having no residential requirements to elect six council members and a mayor had been established in 1963 to “ensure that areas having higher concentrations of black population are thrown together with areas having low concentrations of black population. This method of elections dilutes the voting strength of black citizens.”
Federal Judge Wilbur Owens presided over the case. Twenty-two months of deliberations led to a compromised settlement.
“The method of voting would be changed from the at-large system to wards and districts, with three black districts for City Council, one black district for the County Commission and four black districts for the Valdosta Board of Education,” according to “The Power of Positive Self-Esteem.” Three decades ago, few black students attended county schools so the county school board was not considered at issue in 1985, Houseal says.
The compromise included another change within the City Council structure. The council took its present form: mayor, six district council members and one at-large council member. Houseal says some of the suit’s allies were not pleased with keeping one at-large council member, but he says compromise was essential to change. Compromise made change possible, and those changes have been impressive through the years.
“We were changing the status quo,” Houseal says, “changing the climate of this community, the political climate.”