Congresswoman-elect Jennifer McClellan, who grew up in South Chesterfield, stopped off for lunch at Ettrick Deli last December.
As the daughter of educators and civil rights activists who were raised in the segregated South, Jennifer McClellan learned at an early age that government can be either a force for good or an instrument of systemic oppression.
After spending most of the past two decades pursuing the former goal as a member of the Virginia General Assembly, she’s now taking the same passion for “helping people and solving problems” to Washington.
McClellan, who grew up in South Chesterfield, won a Feb. 21 special election for the 4th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Once she’s sworn into office, she’ll become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
A self-described “huge history nerd,” McClellan acknowledged it’s humbling to consider that her name will forever be associated with such a landmark accomplishment.
“It’s an incredible honor, but also an incredible responsibility to ensure that I’m bringing up other people with me – that I’m not just blazing a trail, but I’m creating a space for others to succeed on that trail as well,” she said.
McClellan’s parents both worked at Virginia State University – her father as a professor and her mother as a counselor – and instilled in her a strong commitment to public service.
She was valedictorian of Matoaca High School’s Class of 1990, then earned degrees in English and political science from the University of Richmond before graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1997.
She ran for elected office for the first time in 2005, seeking a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates that was vacated when Viola Baskerville stepped down to run for lieutenant governor. McClellan won the election and represented the 71st District from 2006 to 2017.
Following Donald McEachin’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives, McClellan won a special election in January 2017 for the right to succeed him as representative of Virginia’s 9th Senate District.
She couldn’t have known at the time that she would run again to fill his legislative shoes six years later.
McEachin died last November at age 61, leaving the 4th U.S. House District seat vacant. McClellan easily won the special election to represent a sprawling congressional district that runs south from Richmond to the Virginia-North Carolina border and includes the eastern half of Chesterfield.
“We were partners on a lot of issues, whether it was when I was a delegate and he was a senator or when I was a senator and he was a congressman,” she said of McEachin. “It will be easy for me to jump in and be intentional about building on his legacy, but in a way that recognizes the unique perspective that I bring as a Black woman.”
McClellan noted it will be “an incredible honor” to represent in Congress the community that shaped and molded her and where her mother still lives, off River Road in South Chesterfield.
One of McClellan’s committee assignments will be Armed Services, where she will have civilian oversight of Fort Lee among other U.S. military installations. She has fond memories of attending her senior prom at the local Army base.
“I have deep roots in the district and that makes it all the more exciting,” she added.
While McClellan has come a long way in her 50 years, she remains mindful of the sacrifices her family made to help her get here – and what they and many other African Americans endured under Jim Crow. Making things better for future generations is a major reason she went into public service in the first place.
“I’ve built on the work of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. If a little girl from Trojan Woods [a South Chesterfield neighborhood near VSU] can get elected to Congress, anybody who puts in the work and sets their mind to it has a chance to do it,” she said. “But that also requires all of us to do our part to keep our democracy alive and make sure that these trails we’re blazing stay clear – that we’re not putting more obstacles in people’s way.”