Unita Blackwell (born 18 March 1933) was the first African-American woman to be elected a mayor in the U.S. state of Mississippi and is a civil rights activist. She is the founder of the United States China Peoples Friendship Association, a group dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between the United States and China. Barefootin' , Blackwell's autobiography, charts her activism.
Blackwell and her parents lived in Lula until she was three years old. Fearing for his life, Blackwell's father left the plantation on which he worked and fled to Memphis, Tennessee in 1936. Soon afterwards, Blackwell and her mother left the plantation to live with him. On June 20, 1938 Blackwell's parents separated due to religious differences, following this, Blackwell and her mother went to West Helena, Arkansas to live with Blackwell's great aunt so that she had the opportunity to receive an education. While Blackwell lived there she often visited her father in Memphis. During the summer months she would leave West Helena and live with her grandfather and grandmother in Lula, where she helped plant and harvest cotton. Blackwell was 14 when she finished the eighth grade, the final year of school at Westside, a school in West Helena for black children. While preparing her work for civil rights movement, she worked with her parents as a sharecropper, then chopped cotton for just $3 a day. Despite this, she later went on to receive her Master's Degree in Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Blackwell was in her early twenties when she first met Jeremiah Blackwell, a cook for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A few years later, they traveled to Clarksdale, Mississippi and were married by a Justice of the Peace. On 2 July 1957 the couple's only son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr., was born. In January 1957, Blackwell became extremely ill and was taken to the hospital in West Helena. She was pronounced dead. She claims to have had a near-death experience at this time and was later found to be alive in her hospital room. In 1960 Blackwell and Jeremiah moved into his deceased grandmother's shotgun house, in Mayersville, Mississippi.
Blackwell organized voter registration drives across Mississippi. In the late 1960s she worked as a community development specialist with the National Council of Negro Women. She was also a project director for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was jailed over 70 times because of her role in the protests.
In 1976, Blackwell was elected Mayor of Mayersville, making her the first female African-American mayor in Mississippi, holding this office for 25 years. Blackwell has also served on the Democratic National Committee and as co-chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
As part of her community development efforts, she helped found Mississippi Action for Community Education, a community-development organization in Greenville, Mississippi. From 1990 to 1992, Blackwell was president of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Blackwell became a voice for rural housing and development, and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter invited her to an Energy Summit at Camp David. Blackwell was also awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.
Blackwell has recently been diagnosed as being in the early stages of dementia. In January 2008 she disappeared from her hotel in Atlanta, GA, then was found later at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Blackwell along with help from JoAnne Prichard Morris, wrote an autobiography about her life including her working as a Sharecropper for her parents, being elected Mayor of Mayersville causing her rise from "Poverty to Power", and then to her actions in the Civil Rights Movement. It was published in 2006 by Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of Random House.