Unita Zelma

Unita Blackwell

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.

Early life and marriage

Unita Blackwell was born on 18 March 1933 in Lula, Mississippi to sharecroppers Virda Mae and Willie Brown. Blackwell's uncle gave her the name U.Z., which she kept until she was in the sixth grade when her teacher told her that she needed "a real name, not just initials". Blackwell and her teacher decided on Unita Zelma.

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.

Civil rights activism

Blackwell first got involved in the civil rights movement in June of 1964, when two activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Mayersville and held meetings, in the church she belonged to, concerning African American's right to vote. The following week she and seven others went to the courthouse to take a voter registration test, so that they could vote. Only 2 out of the 7 people got into the courthouse to take the test that day. Blackwell calls that day the "turning point" in her life, because of the way they were treated outside the courthouse by a group of white men. Jeremiah and Unita lost their job the next day after their employer found out that they had been part of the group. A few days later Blackwell finally got into the courthouse to take the voter registration test, but she didn't pass it at that time.

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.

Political career and late life

Blackwell has been on 16 diplomatic missions to China since 1973. As part of her commitment to better relations between the United States and China, she founded the US China Peoples Friendship Association, an association dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between the United States and China.

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.


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