Democrat Jennifer McClellan was sworn in to the U.S. House late Tuesday, making her the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
The longtime state lawmaker leaned into the historical and personal significance of the moment, telling The Associated Press she would take her oath of office with a family Bible containing a receipt for a poll tax her father once had to pay tucked into its pages.
“The fact that I’m the first from Virginia, the birthplace of American democracy and the birthplace of American slavery, is kind of poetic justice,” McClellan said in an interview Monday.
As McClellan formally joins the ranks of Congress, she will make Virginia the 23rd state to be represented in Congress by a Black woman, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of historical records.
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 kept the proof in his now-worn Bible; and her mother, the first woman in her family to attend school beyond eighth grade, did not vote until the 1965 Voting Acts Right was enacted.
“What sparked my interest in government was listening to them tell their stories, where they saw the best of government in the New Deal and the worst of government in Jim Crow,” she said. “Those stories not only made me want to focus on making government a force for helping people and solving problems, but I’ll carry those stories into the House chamber with me.”
McClellan won a special election last month to represent Virginia’s blue-leaning 4th District, which stretches from Richmond south to the border of North Carolina. The seat was opened when Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin died weeks after being elected to a fourth term in November.
McClellan won’t shift the balance of power in the House, which is narrowly held by Republicans with a 222-seat majority. Democrats have 213 seats.
McClellan called McEachin a “big brother” figure, starting with his mentorship of Black college students like her at the University of Richmond. McClellan went on to become an associate general counsel at Verizon over 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 with McEachin in the statehouse to press a range of progressive goals.
She became a force behind many Democratic proposals, including bills 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 the secondary effects of colorectal cancer, McClellan considered following in his footsteps again, as she did in 2017 when he vacated a seat in the state Senate. This time, though, she missed McEachin’s phone calls of advice.
“I really felt his absence,” McClellan said, adding that she ultimately decided she could build on his legacy.
She will also add a new dynamic to Virginia’s delegation. McClellan has two children and was the first Virginia delegate to give birth while in office after she joined the state House in 2006.
During an interview that was peppered with the background noise of children arriving home from school, McClellan said she was ready “to bring a brand new perspective as a Black mom, a Black woman and a working mom.”