Wilhelmina Jackson Rolark was a true force in Washington, D.C.’s political history. A lawyer by trade, she was known for her civil rights activism and political firsts on the D.C. city council, serving 16 years as the Ward 8 Councilmember.
Born in Portsmouth, Va., on Sept. 27, 1916, Rolark attended Howard University from 1933-1937 graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree and received a Master’s Degree in political science from Howard in 1938. She went on to earn a law degree, during night school while working for the Treasury Department, from the now-closed Robert H. Terrell Law School in 1944. She also holds an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law and was a member of the Unified Bar of the District of Columbia.
Rolark worked as a young researcher in the 1940s, when she traveled through the South to document the plight of blacks for Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark work, “The American Dilemma.”
Thereafter, she began working for the underrepresented, black, population with her husband, the late Dr. Calvin W. Rolark, Sr., whom she married in 1963. Together, they would become a political force to be reckoned with, fighting to improve the status and lives of African Americans, focusing on women and youth.
In 1966 she and Calvin founded the Washington Informer, a small weekly newspaper that sought to serve the African American population across the District. Today the paper continues under the direction of her step-daughter Denise Rolark Barnes.
Always a fighter for the people, she and Calvin decided to found the United Black Fund (UBF), a non-profit organization that provides funding to community-based organizations. They founded the non-profit after challenging the United Way about their discriminatory fund allocation policies to agencies within black communities. During this period the United Giver’s Fund (UGF) and the Health and Welfare Council denied funds to black oriented non-profits and because she and Calvin were the voices for these organizations, they helped pave the way for future funding from the federal government. As a result UBF became the first Black fundraising organization in the country to be granted rights to Federal payroll deductions.
Rolark fought for Home Rule during the 70s, running soon after its establishment in 1974 and loss by less than 100 votes to James Coates. She went on to defeat him two years later, as the council members had 2-year terms back then. After her win in 1976 she went on to serve four terms on the council for 16 years, loosing her last race to former Mayor Marion Barry who had just been released from prison.
During her years on the council she authored and sponsored numerous legislative pieces that changed D.C. forever. Most notable legislation she sponsored were the D.C. Cable Franchise Act, in which she fought for cable television to come to the District, insisting that it first go to the residents in Ward 8. The D.C. Depository Act was also transformational for the District. Before Rolark became a councilmember the District’s money held in the Federal Treasury As a councilmember she wrote the legislation that took D.C.’s money out of the treasury and put it into local banks, but with social criteria, like hiring minorities and women. Again, she showed her commitment to fighting for the underrepresented populations of the District.
Fighting for young offenders, she helped establish legislation for the Juvenile Protection Act and Youth Rehabilitation Act, which controls the incarceration for residents under the age of 22. Other legislative pieces she helped create were police foot patrols, tougher bail laws, and sentencing for murders, improving job training across the District, improved bus routes and recreation in public housing
She was also instrumental in helping establish the D.C. Energy Office and named the two main streets in Ward 8 after two prominent civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. SE and Malcolm X Ave. SE. Along with her husband Calvin and other local civil rights activist Peety Greene, she started the first MLK Day Parade, before King’s birthday became a national federal holiday. Each year she held the MLK parade in Ward 8 and for many years musical legend Stevie Wonder attended to pay homage to King.
Over a span of 51 plus years she was a dedicated public servant and became a voice for the people of D.C. alongside of her husband Calivn Rolark. She broke many barriers for women of color, particularly in the field of law. Mentoring many African-American lawyers in the District, she founded the National Association of Black Women Attorneys among other firsts for black women in law in the District. Her legacy is remembered and never forgotten.