Lawrence Douglas (Doug) Wilder, grandson of slaves, first made history by being elected to the state Senate in Virginia in 1969. In 1986 he took office as lieutenant governor of the state. And in 1989, he became the first African American to be elected a state governor.

His signal success in politics, particularly in a southern state, prompted people to ask, time and time again, if that didn’t show that black people had finally “arrived” in America.

His answer was the same each time, and it was the same when people asked the same question after Barack Obama became the first black President.


That answer, of course, came as no surprise to the mostly black, mostly affluent audience gathered at Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs to hear Mr. Wilder on Tuesday evening as part of the Road Scholar speaker series. It could come as no surprise to anyone with any knowledge of black educational attainment, unemployment, income, wealth or other comparative statistics.

But the question served the rhetorical purpose of allowing Mr. Wilder to remind a collection of people who had personally “arrived” just how tenuous were the gains made by black people in America.

He began by pointing out not the significance of his own achievements, but their insignificance.

For 15 years between his election as governor of Virginia and that of Deval Patrick as governor of this state in 2006, he said, he was reluctant to embrace the word first, because “you can’t be first unless there’s a second.”

One black governor might be better considered an anomaly.

“But two could be the start of a pattern,” he said.

And while it was encouraging that Governor Patrick had not only been elected, but reelected, and that America now had a black President, there was little to be learned from looking at such “political data points,” or at other measures of individual success like the numbers on corporate or other boards.

It was not that he meant to denigrate such milestones, or minimize the great things done by many people, but “the view needs be more layered and complex than that,” Mr. Wilder said.

He offered some other indicators of how little some things have changed for many black people since the end of slavery, almost 150 years ago. One in particular drew gasps from his audience.

“A shocking statistic, that you should remember [is that] 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation the percentage of Africans in this country that could read was higher than that percentage is today,” he said.

“Sad! That’s a damning, unacceptable fact. We can’t sustain political power if that remains true. We can’t create economic power if that remains true.

“Equality for no one in this nation is secure if that remains true, no matter the skin color. We can do better than that. We must do better than that.”

He recalled his own childhood and the emphasis that was placed on inculcating what had been achieved and what still needed to be achieved.

He recalled his father talking about emancipation, saying “the big bell rang.”

He recalled that the bell rang again in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in education. He recalled the civil rights movement. He recalled some of his own actions in government, directed toward making things fairer for black people and educating the community about “the suffering, the pain, the denials of the people who had been left out and locked up . . . the lives that were lost.”

The next generation needed to know the importance of that history, he said, but too many were ignorant of it because too many black households no longer made kids “sit down and listen.”

He was concerned, too, that many did not stress the importance of education.

“They have to see us reading, they have to see us being curious about their homework, their school life. They have to see us exhibiting a sense of curiosity that will become infectious,” he said.

And he criticized aspects of contemporary black culture. He noted, for example, the pro-social role of the comedian Bill Cosby, and contrasted it with a current black comedy star, Tracy Morgan.

He was “shocked and stunned” to see one of Mr. Morgan’s recent television appearances, and recited a part of the routine where Mr. Morgan riffed about going to the White House where a gun-toting President Obama assured him he was “still a nigger who knew what to do with the gun.”

“Us niggers know how to look out for ourselves,” Gov. Wilder quoted.

He continued: “You notice I didn’t say to you all ‘the n word’. I said it like it is, because ‘the n word’ is just as offensive as nigger. Because you’re thinking it, and if you’re thinking it you’re using it, and if you’re using it you’re disparaging,” he said.

“What gives this man the license to believe that he can say that?”

He noted that white broadcaster Don Imus had been pulled off air for making derogatory racial comments. They were no more acceptable coming from a black man.

“We can’t put Imus off and reward Morgan,” he said.

Mr. Wilder also noted the recent comments by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, who reproached black youths for their dress and demeanor, saying they had “damaged” their own race.

Mayor Nutter said black youths who walked around with their pants hanging down, shoes untied, “hair uncombed with a pick in the back” and tattoos down their arms should not wonder why they can’t find jobs.

Mr. Wilder agreed, and so, by their reaction to the story, did his audience.

It all went back to education, he said.

Without that, there was no economic power. And without economic power, there could be no political power, he said, for “the one-word definition for politics [is] money.”

He closed his address with a Bible story, about Abraham’s response on being told that all the wells of the land had dried up.

Said Mr. Wilder: “He admonished them, ‘Then we must re-dig the wells that our fathers have dug.’”

If black Americans were to progress, he said, they had to recommit to the “heavy work” of the past 150 years, that had eventually brought forth a black President.

And through such a commitment, he told his audience, they might see a second black President, who could establish the pattern and “truly bestow the title ‘first’ on Barack Obama.

“Thank you and let’s re-dig the wells,” Mr. Wilder said.