Hidden History: Eleanor Parker Sheppard, Richmond’s first female mayor

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — There is an exhibition at The Valentine called This is Richmond, Virginia. Prominently displayed is a woman who helped make countless contributions to the Richmond we know today.

Eleanor Parker Sheppard, a Georgia native who often described herself as shy, was a political force in Richmond during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

(Photo: The Valentine)

“You can imagine as a woman what she had to face,” says David Voelkel, The Valentine’s Elise H. Wright Curator of the General Collection.

Sheppard first secured a seat within the Ginter Park Elementary PTA, then was the first woman ever elected to the Richmond City Council and kept moving up the ladder as a leader.

“She ended up becoming the first woman in Virginia to be Mayor, elected Mayor of an incorporated city,” explains Voelkel. “Her issues were very progressive issues for her time period, and she was reflective of larger national trends.”

From 1962 to 1964, a time when Richmond was dealing with segregation and turmoil, Mayor Sheppard fought for urban renewal, healthcare and children’s issues. She also helped pave the way for Interstate-95 during her tenure.

(Photo: The Valentine)

Once she moved from city to state politics, Delegate Sheppard sponsored a higher education bill that led to Virginia Commonwealth University.

“The work of Eleanor Parker Sheppard really showed the men in Richmond in that time period that a woman could do a man’s job and, in fact, do it better,” says Voelkel. “She really fought for Richmond, and she fought for people who didn’t always have a voice.”

Sheppard passed away in 1991, but many of her projects and even her name live on in Richmond. She is the ‘Sheppard’ in Overby-Sheppard Elementary School.

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