WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrat Jennifer McClellan, clutching a poll tax bill her father once had to pay tucked into the pages of the family Bible, was sworn in to the U.S. House on Tuesday, becoming the first black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. .
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy administered the ceremonial oath of office with McClellan, who was joined by her two children, in the chamber. Members from both sides of the House — Democrats and Republicans — stood and applauded when it was pointed out that she was the first black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
Virginia is now the 23rd state to be represented by a black woman, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of historical records.
“It is an extraordinary honor, not only when I think of my own family history, and what my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went through to make this possible, but also the fact that I am the first from Virginia, the birthplace of American democracy and the birthplace of American slavery, it’s kind of poetic justice,” McClellan told The Associated Press in an interview Monday.
McClellan recalled how her parents and grandparents faced Jim Crow-era obstacles just to vote. She said her grandfather had to prove he could read and find three white men to vouch for it. Her father, a pastor and professor, had to pay a poll tax to vote, and he kept the proof in his now worn Bible. Her mother, the first woman in her family to attend school beyond the eighth grade, did not vote until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
“What sparked my interest in government was listening to them tell their stories, where they saw the best government in the New Deal and the worst government in Jim Crow,” she told the AP. “Those stories not only made me focus on making government a force for helping people and solving problems, but I’ll take those stories with me into the hall.”
The longtime state lawmaker won a special election last month to represent Virginia’s blue-leaning 4th District, which stretches from Richmond south to the North Carolina border. The seat opened when Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin died weeks after being elected to a fourth term in November.
McClellan will not change the balance of power in the House of Representatives, which is narrowly held by Republicans with a majority of 222 seats. Democrats have 213 mandates.
McClellan called McEach a “big brother” figure, beginning with his mentoring of black students like her at the University of Richmond. McClellan rose to associate general counsel at Verizon during a 20-year career with the company. She also represented parts of the Richmond area in the General Assembly for nearly two decades and joined McEachin in the statehouse to advance a number of progressive goals.
She has become a force behind many Democratic proposals, including legislation to expand voting access, ensure abortion rights and curb climate change. She ran for governor in 2021, but lost in a crowded Democratic primary to Terry McAuliffe.
After McEachin’s death from secondary effects of colorectal cancer, McClellan considered following in his footsteps again, as she did in 2017 when he vacated his state Senate seat. However, this time she missed McEachin’s phone calls with advice.
“I really felt his absence,” McClellan said, adding that she ultimately decided she could build on his legacy.
McClellan, the first Virginia state delegate to give birth while in office, has two children. Speaking by phone over the background noise of children coming home from school, McClellan told the AP she was ready “to bring a whole new perspective as a black mother, a black woman and a working mother.”
Sarah Rankin, an Associated Press writer in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.