Irma Anderson, former Richmond Mayor and political trailblazer, dies at 93


RICHMOND — Irma Anderson made history in 1993 as the first Black woman elected to the Richmond City Council and again in 2001 when voters backed her bid to become the first — and only — Black woman to serve as the city’s mayor.

After retiring from a career as a public health nurse, her immediate foray into public office was a natural next step for the decades-long community leader, who was deeply dedicated to improving the lives of local youth and the African American community.

Anderson died peacefully at home Sunday at the age of 93 of complications related to pancreatic cancer, according to her eldest son, Ahmad Anderson. She had celebrated her birthday on Jan. 18, surrounded by family and fellowship in her Richmond home.

Echoing praise for his mother’s legacy as a trailblazer across Contra Costa County, Ahmad Anderson said that she lived her life as an empathetic, servant leader — an attitude that culminated in a life larger than her 5’2” stature.

“As people say, from the small acorn comes the mighty oak, and my mother was a giant amongst giants,” Ahmad Anderson told this publication Tuesday. “She did not do it for the pomp and circumstance, but did it so that the people who could not speak, she could deliver their message. My mother was a pillar for voices that were unrepresented and a lighthouse for folks in troubled waters — giving them hope that, at the end of the night, there was light.”

As her health started to fail earlier this month, Ahmad said that his mother greeted the moment with peace, saying, “I’ve lived a great life.”

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, a close friend and the first person to publicly announce her death Monday, lauded Anderson’s talents and dedication to improving health care and economic opportunity for the county’s second largest city.

“Irma always saw issues through the lens of community and individual health, which reflected in her personality,” Gioia said Tuesday. “She was a fierce advocate, but she also had a great bedside manner — always making sure to ask about family and make those connections. She really cared about people individually, which drove her.”

Community members and loved ones also applauded Anderson’s drive to help develop after-school programs throughout the city of Richmond alongside the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

At the age of 75, she narrowly lost her bid for re-election in 2006 — closing a 14-year career as an elected official.

Born and raised near Boston, Massachusetts, Anderson had collected a few other “firsts” during her career before beginning work inside Richmond City Hall.

She was valedictorian at her high school and earned two nursing degrees from Cornell University — the only African American to graduate in her class, according to her son. She eventually met her future husband, Booker T. Anderson, while attending church back in Boston. They got married and moved to California, living first in Sacramento before settling in Richmond in the late 1950’s. Irma Anderson later earned a Masters of Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.

After working for Contra Costa Health for 20 years, she was appointed as the department’s first Black public health nursing director in 1983 — a title she held for nearly another decade before retiring in 1992.

Wendel Brunner, a former longtime Public Health Director with Contra Costa Health, highlighted how Anderson organized and chaired the West County AIDS Task Force alongside local leaders across the region.

“As a City leader and long-time and passionate public health advocate,” Brunner said in a statement, “(Irma) brought the city and the Health Department together to confront the AIDS epidemic that was ravaging through West County in the 90’s.”

Richmond City Hall flew its flag at half-mast Tuesday in honor of Anderson’s life, according to current Mayor Eduardo Martinez, who said “her term in City Hall was marked by dedication to community enrichment and public service.”

Former Richmond Mayor Tom Butt acknowledged that while he and Anderson had their conflicts, they reconciled and became friends over the years. On Monday, he praised her work initiating what became the Office of Neighborhood Safety — a movement called Cease Fire in some cities.

“(Irma) was convinced that a public health approach to gun violence could make a big difference and brought some experts out from Boston for an all-day seminar,” Butt shared on social media Monday. “The City Council ultimately adopted her recommendations, and by all accounts, the Office of Neighborhood safety played a major role in bringing down Richmond’s homicide rate.”

A memorial honoring Irma Anderson’s life is planned for Feb. 16 at Easter Hill United Methodist Church.

Irma Anderson was preceded in death by her husband, a pastor at Easter Hill who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the heart of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and also served as a Richmond city councilmember and mayor in the 1970s. He died in 1982. She is survived by her two children, Ahmad and Wilbert.



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