Historic firsts for Black administrators, legislators and industry leaders across the DC region

Throughout February, WTOP is celebrating Black History Month. Join us on air and online as we bring you the stories, people and places that make up our diverse community.

D.C.-area leadership has reflected the diversity of the region over the past year, with Black administrators, executives, legislators and directors taking on top roles in their organizations.

Below are some public servants who have stepped up, bringing their leadership, experience and perspective to the region.

If there are leaders you feel deserve a spot on this list, please contact WTOP’s Ivy Lyons at ivy.lyons@wtop.com


Warnique West

The District marked a handful of historic steps, with women of color entering positions in agencies and organizations across the city.

Frigid starts to the new year marked a snowy first for Warnique West, the first Black female to lead the city’s winter weather response as snow coordinator. D.C. Department of Public Works Director Timothy Spriggs dubbed her the “snow queen.”

West’s job became crucial as the first weeks of 2024 turned out blankets of snow, occasional snow squalls and contributed to school closings.

“I was born and raised in D.C. I love my city,” West told WTOP’s Scott Gelman in January. “To be able to be a public servant of my city is one of the proudest things that I do because not only am I making sure that the roads of the District are safe for the citizens, but also for my family.”

Pamela A. Smith

After spending years as the first Black woman to lead the U.S. Park Police, D.C.’s acting police chief Pamela A. Smith became the first Black female to become chief of D.C. police, garnering unanimous approval from the D.C. Council’s public safety committee.

In an interview with WTOP, Smith committed to doing more work in the community in an effort to limit crime in the city.

“We have a community that’s looking for someone to come in and change the trajectory of how we police. This gives me an opportunity to really get out into the community and hear from the voices of the people when we create our initiatives and plans,” Smith told WTOP.

Hana S. Sharif

Across the District’s creative scene, Black firsts were in abundance. The Arena Stage was among those that celebrated a notable first, welcoming Hana S. Sharif, its first Black artistic director, in fall 2023.

“Following in the great footsteps of the iconic Zelda Fichandler and the visionary Molly Smith, it is such a joy to be artistic director here at Arena Stage and something that in some ways feels manifested,” Sharif told WTOP’s Jason Fraley. “I remember when I was 19 years old, saying and writing down that one day I would be artistic director of Arena Stage, so it does feel like a gift to be able to lead this company in the next phase of its life.”


Angel Livas

Meanwhile, D.C.-area business woman Angel Livas celebrated the launch of the Alive Podcast Network, the first Black woman-owned podcast network, discussing the new venture with WTOP’s Stephanie Gaines-Bryant.

“You can go to one place and find a robust amount of content that speaks to the Black population,” Livas told WTOP, calling the venture a win for hosts of color and podcast listeners.

Eamoni Collier, Chef Lew McAlister and Chef Pinkey Reddick

The D.C. food scene saw some notable developments, with Eamoni Collier starting Urban Garden Brewing in the District and chefs Lew McAlister and Pinkey Reddick cutting the ribbon on Flavorture — the first Black-owned restaurant in the Woodley Park neighborhood. At-large Council member Kenyan McDuffie marked the historic moment, speaking with WTOP’s Dick Uliano.

“This is a great day not only for Pinkey and Mac, this is a great day for Washington D.C. … I’m excited about that because we’ve got a Black-owned restaurant right here, smack-dab in Woodley Park, in the nation’s capital. It doesn’t happen every day,” McDuffie said.

Gallaudet K-12 Graduates of 2023

In a heartwarming development, a challenge for Black deaf students moved closer to a historic conclusion, as Gallaudet University celebrated the graduation of dozens of students decades after they were kept from getting diplomas.

“They had attended school and had nothing to show for it. And that, I’m sure, was disappointing to them. They were dejected by that experience,” said Carolyn McCaskill, a Gallaudet University professor and founding director of the school’s Center for Black Deaf Studies.

The July 24 ceremony honored students in grades K-12 who attended the Kendall School through the early 1950s. Those students, who were only able to attend the school after a legal battle against segregation, were kept from high school diplomas despite anti-segregation efforts.


Wes Moore

The previous year saw the start of Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s tenure as the state’s first Black governor — a historic first for the state boasting an African American population of 31.7%.

During his inauguration, he pledged to “bear true allegiance to the state of Maryland” in one of two swearing-in ceremonies in Annapolis.

“We do not have to choose between a competitive economy and an equitable one. We do not have to choose between a safe state and a just state. Maryland can, and will, be both,” Moore said during an inauguration speech.

He shared plans to directly tackle the racial wealth gap, protect the Chesapeake Bay and fight pollution, WTOP’s Jack Moore reports, and put the state on track to generate 100% of clean energy by 2035, saying “clean energy will define our economy.”

Mark Winston

The Prince George’s County Memorial Library System announced Thursday that it would be making the historic step of diversifying its leadership, welcoming the majority Black and Latino population of readers that calls the region home.

“It is humbling and motivating to think of my appointment as a milestone,” Winston said of his appointment.

The Maryland native’s decision to lead the library system as the first Black CEO in its 78-year history was lauded by the current chair of the system’s board of trustees.

“As a former resident of Maryland with an impressive background in library leadership, we are confident he will move our system forward providing resources and services to our large and diverse communities,” chairperson Angela D. Smith said in a release.

“It is a pleasure and an honor to assume the role of CEO of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System,” Winston said. “I am very enthusiastic about working with such an impressive staff and dedicated Board in building on the library’s success in providing library services for the community.”

Dwayne A. Preston

After years with the Prince George’s County Police Department and as a leader in Bowie, Maryland’s sworn force, Dwayne Preston became the first Black person to hold the job of Chief of Police for the city.

“After an exhaustive, nationwide search, I am proud to say that Dwayne Preston is the best person to head up the Bowie Police Department,” City Manager Alfred Lott said in a late December news release. “He understands Bowie, he has built strong bridges between city and county police departments, and I know he will continue the fine tradition of service with integrity and community policing that the Bowie Police Department has been known for.”

Laphonza Butler

Former Maryland resident Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris — the first female of color to hold the office of Vice President — was tapped by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the U.S. Senate seat made vacant by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Accepting the role, Butler not only became the only Black woman currently serving in the chamber, but also the first openly LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the Senate.

Butler previous worked from Maryland, leading EMILY’s List — a group that focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, called the appointment of Butler one that offers the LGBTQ+ “community another voice in Congress at a time when our rights and freedoms are under attack across the country.”


Don Scott

Making history in the Virginia State Capitol is Del. Don Scott, the first Black speaker of the statehouse in the Commonwealth’s more than four centuries of existence.

Scott became the chamber’s Democratic leader in 2022, following the ouster of former leader Eileen Filler-Corn. He was unanimously elected speaker-designee by the House Democratic Caucus, and officially confirmed during the first day of the 2024 legislative session. Scott discussed the historic result with WTOP’s Nick Iannelli.

“I know I stand on the shoulders of giants, so I don’t want to squander this opportunity,” Scott said. “I want to make sure I do the best job of any speaker who just happens to be Black.”

Jennifer McClellan

Virginia voters also used the election cycle to put Democrat Jennifer McClellan, a veteran state legislator from Richmond, in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she became the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.

McClellan beat out GOP nominee Leon Benjamin to represent Virginia’s 4th District, taking the seat that opened after the death of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who’d recently won a fourth term in office.

Prior to her victory, only 22 states had ever elected a Black woman to Congress, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis.

McClellan said her father’s grandfather was among those who needed to take a literacy test and find three white people to vouch for him to register to vote in Virginia — her grandfather and father paid poll taxes and her mother, now 90, didn’t vote until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. McClellan hopes her victory can lead to more diverse representation across the state and country.

“It’s a huge honor, and responsibility, to ensure that I’m not the last,” she said.

Virginia State University

Historically Black colleges and universities dealt with a number of challenges, from bomb threats to challenging living conditions and protests, and continued to make historic strides. Among those strides: VSU being selected as the first HBCU to host a presidential debate, one of three scheduled in the 2024 general election campaign season.

“This incredible achievement will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the campus community, the university’s reputation and the nation as a whole. Now people will know that not only does Greater Happen at VSU, but history happens here as well,” Eldon Burton, the university’s assistant vice president for government relations, said in a statement referencing VSU’s mantra “Greater Happens Here.”

VSU President Makola M. Abdullah said the school was honored and grateful to host candidates for this year’s presidential debate.

“This is a historic moment for our university and for HBCUs nationwide,” Abdullah concluded.

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Ivy Lyons

Ivy Lyons is a digital journalist for WTOP.com. Since 2018, they have worked on Capitol Hill, at NBC News in Washington, and with WJLA in Washington.

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