Frank Washington was one of the state Department of Education’s first African American administrators, overseeing the state’s black public schools. It was through that position that Washington witnessed the wide-spread inequity in the South Carolina’s public education system. The experience strengthened Washington’s resolve to fight racial discrimination and the under-representation of African-Americans in all public life, from elected offices, to jobs, to contracting.
Washington, always active in the NAACP, rose to the leadership of the Columbia branch. Within the organization, one of Washington’s most significant victories was leading the NAACP in pressuring the city of Columbia to change the way it elected its mayor and city council. It gave a city with a large black population the opportunity to elect black candidates, ushering in a new era of politics in the state’s capital. Washington was chairman of the Columbia branch of the NAACP for 16 years. Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, Columbia’s city council was still the exclusive home of white males. All of the councilmen, Washington recalls, were from the same part of town. This fact, Washington argues, shows clearly that black voters lacked representation. The NAACP filed suit in 1977. The suit was appealed to the state Supreme Court, but a political solution was hammered out when the city agreed to hold a referendum asking whether the city should adopt single-member districts. Single-member districts carried the vote. And that voting plan remains in place, as the city is divided into geographic districts and voters from those districts have the opportunity to select a candidate for the city council.
Today, Columbia City Council has several African American members, thanks in part to the work Washington did 30 years ago.