Irma Anderson, trailblazing former Richmond mayor, dies at 93

Irma Anderson, Richmond's trailblazing former mayor, dies at 93
The late Irma Anderson (in red) attends former Richmond Mayor Nat Bates' retirement gala last year. (Photo by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

Irma Anderson, a staunch community advocate who was the first black woman to serve on the Richmond City Council and also as the city’s mayor, died Sunday at age 93.

Anderson, who served on City Council from 1990 to 2001, and as mayor from 2001 to 2006, is credited with a lasting legacy in the community that includes improving public health and creating opportunities for youth, said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.

“I had the honor and pleasure to work with Irma for 30 years and call her a friend,” Gioia said. “Her talent and determination allowed her to break barriers by being Contra Costa’s first African-American Director of Public Health Nursing, Richmond’s first black female city councilmember and only black female mayor.”

Former longtime Councilmember Nat Bates was stunned and saddened to learn about his former colleague’s passing.

‘She was a true warrior for the city.’

“Her leadership as a councilmember and mayor was incredible and it was important to African American community and the political realm,” Bates said. “She was a strong leader for quality housing and development. She worked to help bring Target and the shopping center to downtown Richmond.”

Bates noted Anderson was also devoted to her family, including her sons Ahmad and Wilbert, and also as member of the Easter Hill United Methodist Church.

“She truly loved the people of Richmond,” he said.

Anderson moved to Richmond with her husband, the late Rev. Booker T. Anderson Jr., in the 1950s. The Rev. Booker T. Anderson Jr., who passed away in 1982, served as pastor at Easter Hill. For his own part, the reverend had a significant impact in the local community and beyond. He served as Richmond’s mayor in 1973-74 and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the heart of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, twice meeting Dr. King in Richmond.

Meanwhile, Irma Anderson was busy making a difference in her own way.

In a tribute her on Facebook, former Richmond Mayor Tom Butt noted Anderson was her high school valedictorian and that she earned her nursing degrees from Cornell University, as well as a Masters degree in public health from UC Berkeley.

“Anderson’s career changed from nursing to politics after working for the Contra Costa County Health Department, where she began as a nurse and advanced to Director of Public Health Nursing,” Butt said. “As mayor, Anderson worked with the West Contra Costa Unified School District developing after-school programs throughout the city of Richmond.”

Butt and other elected officials point out that Anderson initiated what became the Office of Neighborhood Safety, “a movement called Cease Fire in some cities.”

“She was convinced that a public health approach to gun violence could make a big difference and brought some experts out from Boston for an all-day seminar,” he said. “The City Council ultimately adopted her recommendations, and by all accounts, the Office of Neighborhood safety played a major role in bringing down Richmond’s homicide rate.”

In a biography posted by the West Contra Costa Healthcare District, Anderson was also credited with helping save the city from financial disaster when she was mayor. Her difficult decisions to change management and reduce the city’s operating expenses saved the city from bankruptcy, according to the report.

It was who Irma Anderson was, not necessarily what she did, that makes her legacy lasting, according to loved ones.

“Irma was a dear friend and my mentor,” said Lesa McIntosh, president of the East Bay Municipal Utility District Board of Directors. “She loved her family and friends, and the City of Richmond. She was a true warrior for the city.”