Cheers erupted in the city council chambers Monday night when council member Jillian Johnson announced that Elaine O’Neal would be sworn in as Durham’s first Black woman to serve as mayor.

“This is half of Durham, y’all,” Durham District Court Judge Pat Evans quipped to laughter in the chambers as O’Neal’s family members got up from their seats and joined her for the swearing-in ceremony. 

“All right everybody, here we go,” O’Neal said after Johnson handed her the mayor’s gavel and she took a seat at the helm of the council.

The history-making mayor promised a brand of city leadership that would leave no one behind while facing the challenges of affordable housing, violent crime, immigration, and LGBTQ rights.

O’Neal has a habit of blazing trails. Before making history as Durham’s first Black woman to serve mayor, O’Neal was the first woman to serve as a Durham District Court Chief judge and first woman elected to Durham’s Superior Court.

On Monday night, she praised a diverse and engaged citizenry who continue “to set Durham apart as a model city for North Carolina and across the nation.”

She also thanked outgoing mayor Steve Schewel for “a lifelong commitment to issues of equitability.”

O’Neal noted that the city’s top-shelf challenges, including the dearth of affordable housing and youth-fueled gun violence, are not new challenges and that “it will take some time and effort to solve, block by block, street by street, neighbor to neighbor,” before again emphasizing, “we will leave no one behind.”

She promised to lead a city council that will listen to all residents “regardless of their zip code,” to help build a city where everyone feels safe, earns a living wage, and does not live in the shadows because of their immigration status. She envisions a city where elderly residents will not fear bullets entering their homes and students can learn in safe environments.

“Enough of the guns,” she said of the soaring gun violence this year that has killed a record number of residents. “Enough of the shootings. Enough of the killings.”

O’Neal spoke of a city legacy that nurtured Pauli Murray, the Hillside graduate who grew up in the West End where she also came of age, before Murray went on to become one of the nation’s preeminent civil and women’s rights lawyers, a celebrated author, and Episcopalian priest.

O’Neal also welcomed immigrants who have chosen Durham as their home and said the city would work to reduce barriers to public access and resources and partner with local law enforcement to ensure that Durham remains a sanctuary city.

O’Neal said it’s vital to enlist the voices of the city’s young people in order to create “a healthy youth ecosystem” with youth-informed solutions.

“Our youth have been through a lot,” the new mayor said, “and we need to support them with educational, recreational, physical, and behavioral health services, while also fostering community and a sense of belonging.”

“I want our young people, our children, our future, to know that Durham loves you and will help you build a future where you can thrive,” she added.

O’Neal also pointed to the economic and health challenges that Durham, along with the rest of the world, has endured as a consequence of a nearly two-year-old global pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly 300 residents. She offered condolences to family members who lost loved ones and promised the city’s response to COVID-19 would be driven by science and data.

Before concluding her remarks, O’Neal acknowledged the city’s first female mayor, Sylvia Kerckhoff, who was elected in 1993.

The history-making, new mayor then named the string of Black women—15 in all—who have served on the council, including Carolyn Thornton who became the first Black woman appointed to a council seat in 1978, to its current members Johnson and DeDreana Freeman.

“I may be the first Black woman mayor of Durham,” O’Neal said. “But I certainly won’t be the last woman to sit in this seat.”

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