Former Mayor Walter T. Kenney Sr., who worked across racial, political and regional lines, dies at 88

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/1/2019, 6 a.m.
Former Richmond Mayor Walter T. Kenney Sr. would have been out of step in today’s polarized politics. Mr. Kenney, a …
Walter T. Kenney Sr.

Former Richmond Mayor Walter T. Kenney Sr. would have been out of step in today’s polarized politics.

Mr. Kenney, a proud Richmond native who died Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, in a local hospital at age 88, is being remembered as the “consummate gentleman” of city politics who would talk with everyone, no matter their political leanings.

Even his critics described the lanky politician as an unpretentious and kindly man who received high marks for his unfailing courtesy and his willingness to work across racial and regional lines.

“He was the nicest, kindest, sweetest, gentlest and tallest” member of City Council, his former council colleague Willie J. Dell once said, though she added, “he was also the slowest talker.”

He was part of the first African-American majority on City Council in 1977 and later elected by his council colleagues to serve as mayor for two terms, from 1990 to 1994. During that time, he may have been best known for his work for racial healing in Richmond and for his efforts to raise the profile of the city’s African-American history.

Mayor Levar M. Stoney lauded Mr. Kenney’s service, describing him as a leader in helping “to change the trajectory of our city” and “to build a more just and equitable” community.

Final tributes for Mr. Kenney will be held at a funeral service 11 a.m. Monday, Feb. 4, at Fifth Baptist Church, 1415 W. Cary St..

Viewing will be 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, and Sunday, Feb. 3, at Walter J. Manning Funeral Home, 700 N. 25th St., with a wake from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Born during the Great Depression in Church Hill, Mr. Kenney graduated from Armstrong High School and served in the Army during the Korean War. He became a postal worker when he returned from the military.

He got his first taste of politics in the 1960s when he won election to head the Virginia chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, becoming the first African-American to lead a postal local in the South.

He went on to become the first African-American elected to a national office in the union, serving as vice president until he retired.

In 1977, after years of upheaval, lawsuits and a racial power struggle that led to the court-ordered division of the city into nine election districts, Mr. Kenney joined Ms. Dell, Henry L. Marsh III, Henry W. “Chuck” Richardson and Claudette Black McDaniel as members of the first African-American majority to be elected to City Council.

At a time when council members selected the city’s titular leader, he joined in electing Mr. Marsh, a civil rights attorney and later a state senator, as the city’s first African-American mayor. He remained a staunch ally in ushering in change, including opening a wider range of City Hall jobs to African-Americans, pushing development projects aimed at reviving a sagging Downtown and improving community services.

When Mr. Marsh dismissed the powerful white city manager, William J. Leidinger, the business community reacted furiously. Mr. Kenney was unmoved and stood with Mr. Marsh, and “because Walter stood up, I stood up,” Mr. Richardson recalled.

In 1993, during his second term as mayor, Mr. Kenney made racial reconciliation a top priority. He helped organize Richmond’s first international conference on the topic, teaming with the fledgling reconciliation group Hope in the Cities and the Richmond Hill religious retreat.

As mayor, “he headed a host committee of 75 regional leaders calling for Richmond to address ‘the toxic issue of race’ and asserting that the former capital of the Confederacy could be the gateway to the spirit of healing and partnership that America needs,” according to Rob Corcoran, a founder of Hope in the Cities.

The event was capped with a walk through Richmond that included a diverse crowd of people from the area, as well as from 30 other cities and 20 countries. During the event, marchers called attention to the neglected docks where Africans were brought as slaves and to the Shockoe Bottom markets where they were bought and sold.

Mr. Kenney was quoted after the walk as saying, “It is often the thing from which we hide that eventually fatally wounds us … and such has been the case in Richmond.

“We did not highlight these places in an effort to hand out guilt or vent anger. We wanted to acknowledge their existence so we could … move forward,” he said.

Ousted from his council seat in the 1994 election, Mr. Kenney continued to be a influence through his continuing work with Hope in the Cities and 14 others groups on whose boards he served, including a nonprofit health clinic in Church Hill.

He was among those who opposed the creation of an at-large mayor.

Former City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin, who later followed Mr. Kenney in representing the 6th District that stretches from Highland Park in North Side to Hillside Court in South Side, credits Mr. Kenney for supporting the creation of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission to spotlight Richmond’s role in the inhumane trade of human beings.

Mr. El-Amin said that Mr. Kenney called his inability to get the commission going during his tenure one of his great regrets.

“He said he knew I was the person who could make it happen and gave me his backing, which I appreciated,” Mr. El-Amin said.

Current 6th District Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson remembers the encouragement that Mr. Kenney gave to her and other young people seeking to play leadership roles.

She credited Mr. Kenney with helping her to develop her “simple desire to rebuild our community” into the Highland Park Restoration and Preservation Program, one of the first nonprofits focused on making homeownership a reality for low- to moderate-income families. Mr. Kenney served as a board member and president of the nonprofit and also helped Ms. Robertson secure positions on the board of Hope in the Cities and gain a seat on the city Planning Commission, which she ended up chairing, she said.

He also introduced her to influential, civically active people in the district who later helped her to win the 6th District seat.

“Equality, justice, fair play, civic obligation and voting rights were the cornerstone of his leadership in the 6th District,” Ms. Robertson said.

“He fought for quality government services, despised slothfulness and sacrificed in order to win for his community. He was a purpose driven leader and I miss him.”

Along with being active in the community, Mr. Kenney was active in his church, St. John Baptist Church, where he chaired the Trustee Ministry. The church, though, was considered too small to accommodate his funeral.

Mr. Kenney was the widower of Mamie M. Kenney, who died about 12 years ago.

Survivors include his two daughters, Wilma Kenny Battle of Henrico County and Marvette Kenney of Chester; and a son, Walter T. Kenney Jr. of Loudoun County.