College Student Accuses Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Sexual Harassment

Jenna Portnoy, Washington Post, March 28, 2019

A student who worked with L. Douglas Wilder at the Virginia Commonwealth University school named for the former governor reported to the university and police that Wilder sexually harassed her by kissing her without consent.

The woman, Sydney Black, 22, said Wilder, 88, also suggested she could live at his house and offered to take her on foreign trips and pay for her law school in 2017, while she still worked as an office assistant at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

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But VCU sent Black a letter formally notifying her that the school’s Title IX office intended to investigate.

The four-page letter, dated Jan. 28 and titled “Notice of Investigation,” lays out Black’s allegations, which match her interviews with The Washington Post, and includes a case number.

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Wilder is a historic figure in Virginia and the nation. Named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, he grew up amid segregation in Richmond, the onetime capital of the Confederacy. The grandson of slaves rose to become the first elected African American governor of any state.

Three decades later, he is revered as an elder statesman who speaks his mind without regard to party.

Black, who is African American, said she grappled with filing a report that could tarnish his legacy and bring negative attention to herself.

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Wilder has called for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign over the blackface. He has not commented publicly about the accusations of sexual assault against Fairfax.

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Black said in interviews that on her 20th birthday on Feb. 16, 2017, Wilder took her to dinner to celebrate, gave her alcohol and invited her back to his Richmond condo, where he kissed her. She was a student at VCU at the time, working at the Wilder school as an hourly employee.

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Black reported the alleged incident to the university in December 2018. The university directed Black to speak with Richmond Police Detective Eric Livengood. The university would not say why officials directed Black to Livengood.

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Two days after Black contacted VCU in December 2018, Emily Caputo, civil rights investigations manager at VCU, sent a letter marked “sensitive and private” that said VCU’s Title IX office determined that the conduct Black reported “could possibly” meet the definitions of sexual assault or sex- or gender-based discrimination outlined in VCU policies.

In an email last month, the deputy Title IX coordinator for students at VCU, Tammi Slovinsky, told Black that an “external attorney-investigator with specialized training and experience” had been assigned to her case.

Black told family members of the alleged incident in the days immediately after. Black’s mother, Margo Stokes of Roanoke, and her grandmother, Pauline Carver of Wytheville, said Black called them independently and told them Wilder gave her alcohol and tried to kiss her.

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Black said she worried about the influence someone with Wilder’s power and connections could have over her education and feared he already had caused her to lose her job.

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When he invited her to dinner at the Boathouse, a riverfront restaurant in Richmond, to celebrate her birthday, she assumed they would discuss her career goals.

During the dinner, she said, he ordered her meal and vodka martinis — what he was drinking — even though she told him she was not legally allowed to drink. He told her he could help her get accepted at the Howard University School of Law, where he is a board member.

Black said she was shocked but didn’t dismiss his offers. “I was also thinking this man has the key to my future,” she said.

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Black said Wilder drove her to his nearby condo to see a view of the James River and his African American art collection.

Black said she was drunk and that she noticed his behavior changed after he drank but that it didn’t occur to her to stop him from driving her to the condo.

Inside, he poured them both glasses of champagne and they sat on a small couch in front of a large window, she said.

As they talked, she said, “he reached over and put his hand on my right leg, and I just kind of looked at him, and as soon as I looked at him, he kissed me on my mouth. I immediately jerked away.”

She said she questioned Wilder right away: “Why would you do something like that? I don’t know why you felt comfortable doing that.”

According to Black, he said, “You’re right, I shouldn’t have.” Black said she responded, “Right, so take me home.”

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But, she said, he later acknowledged he had hurt her and invited her to brunch in March 2017 to apologize.

When she arrived at the address he gave her in Charles City County, about an hour from Richmond, she soon realized it was his home.

He gave her champagne and showed her a room in the house where he said she could live, rent-free, she said. No one at VCU would have to know, he told her, according to Black.

He also offered to help her get into and pay for Howard’s law school and to take her on trips to Paris and Atlanta, she said.

“I was kind of freaked out about it,” she said. Black said she declined Wilder’s offers and told him she was looking for a mentorship, not a personal relationship.

She said she pointed out their age difference and questioned him about what he was seeking. According to Black, he said he didn’t want to marry her but sought her companionship.

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They had little contact until May 2017, at a lunch for Wilder school employees at Edo’s Squid, an Italian restaurant near VCU. There, Wilder told Black there no longer was funding for her position, she said.

As time passed, she said, she had trouble coping with how Wilder treated her and had trouble paying for school. She withdrew from classes in the fall of 2018.

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