News & Politics

5 Things to Know About Jennifer McClellan, the First Black Woman to Represent Virginia in Congress

A longtime powerhouse in the Virginia statehouse, McClellan has been breaking barriers for years.

Courtesy of Jennifer McClellan's Virginia Senate Office.

On Tuesday, Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan won a special election for the state’s 4th Congressional district, becoming the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress. She beat conservative pastor Leon Benjamin to fill a seat left vacant by Donald McEachin, who died of colorectal cancer in November of 2022. 

A part-time legislator for 17 years and a corporate lawyer, McClellan centered her campaign around her policy achievements in the Virginia Assembly and her commitment to bringing new perspectives to the position.

Here are five things to know about Congress’s newest member:

1. She Passed Over 350 Bills During Her Time in the Virginia Assembly

McClellan has served in the Virginia statehouse since 2005—first as a Delegate, and then as Senator. During that time, she championed issues including reproductive freedom, clean energy, and worker’s protections. She also sponsored a resolution that led to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 2020 and spearheaded the Voting Rights Act of Virginia that was signed into law in 2021.

2. She Has Already Made History As an Elected Official

In a 2019 interview with UVA Lawyer magazine, McClellan described the difficulties she faced as the first member of the Virginia House of Delegates to be pregnant and give birth while serving: “There were days I had to bring [my children] to the floor and nurse or pump during session.” McClellan subsequently creating spaces around the statehouse for nursing mothers to breastfeed, and later played an instrumental role in passing the Virginia Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. 

3.  She is Outspoken About Her Family’s Intergenerational Fight Against Racism 

McClellan has been candid about how the oppression and violence her family has faced fuels her to make government a tool for change. The great-great granddaughter of slaves, McClellan told Elle magazine in 2020 that she sees her presence in government as being one part in a winding trajectory of her family and and the state of Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy. “I’m fighting the same fight that my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents fought,” she said, adding that her great grandparents faced voter suppression and her parents told her stories of living in the segregated South. “I can’t leave that fight to my children and my grandchildren without doing everything within my power to make progress forward,” she said.

4.  Her Passion for Public Service is Lifelong

As the time of her initial election in 2005, McClellan was the youngest female Delegate in Virgina’s history. Even so, a 2020 Q+ A with the University of Virginia Law School graduate indicates that her commitment to creating change goes back even further:  “… I got interested in government and politics really as a middle schooler learning about history” she said. “The more I read, the more I felt government is an important force for change.”

5. She Represents a Historic District

Virginia’s 4th Congressional district, which contains Richmond and extends towards the North Carolina border, was already the site of a monumental election: it is the same district that elected Virginia’s first-ever Black member of Congress, John Mercer Langston, in 1890. Only two other Black Virginians have represented the state in Congress in the 133 years between Langston and McClellan’s elections.

Julia Rosenberg
Editorial Fellow