Richmond civic leader helped ‘bridge the racial divide’
CLARENCE L. TOWNES JR. 1928-2017
Coalition-builder, negotiator, mediator, translator — those are the words people who knew and worked alongside Clarence Lee Townes Jr. used to describe the Richmond native whose decades of work with Richmond Renaissance and other civic pursuits helped shape modern Richmond.
Mr. Townes, a founding member and former longtime executive director of Richmond Renaissance and a former Richmond School Board chairman, died Wednesday at a local hospital. He was 88, just 10 days shy of his 89th birthday.
“He was a force that believed in progress, but he knew what the path was and was never absent from being a part of moving our city and our state forward,” said former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
“I was pleased as governor to appoint him to the board of Virginia Commonwealth University where he served with great distinction,” Wilder said.
Mr. Townes was a key figure in the transition of Richmond government from white leadership to African-American leadership, said former state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, who in 1977 became Richmond’s first black mayor.
Marsh said Townes introduced him to organizations such as the National League of Cities and the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials.
“I think he wanted to make the system work for everyone, including the elected officials.
He was supposedly a Republican. He wasn’t partisan. He called them as he saw them,” Marsh said.
“He was a wonderful person and dedicated. Things would have turned out differently, in terms of (African-American) involvement in Richmond’s leadership, had it not been for Clarence Townes,” Marsh said.
Mr. Townes was a 1944 graduate of Armstrong High School. He earned a bachelor of science degree from Virginia Union University.
He served in the Army during the Korean War and was honorably discharged in 1953. After leaving the service, he went to work for the Virginia Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co.
Steering clear of the Democratic Byrd political machine that launched Massive Resistance to integration, Mr. Townes joined the ranks of the Republican Party in the late 1950s.
In 1965, he became the Republican Party’s first black candidate in modern times for the state House of Delegates, but he lost disastrously, finishing 16th out of 18 candidates.
From 1966 to 1970, he was the assistant to the chairman of the Republican National Committee and he was a founder and officer of a Howard University-affiliated think tank called the Joint Center for Political Studies.
At the Howard University think tank, Townes worked with emerging black leaders in the South, Marsh said.
“I was one of those leaders, and he assisted me,” Marsh said, explaining that Townes helped him land key positions on National League of Cities committees that made policies affecting cities across the country.
Mr. Townes was one of the founders of Richmond Renaissance, a partnership of city government and businesses to promote economic development that transformed in 2006 into what is now Venture Richmond.
He served as its deputy director when the organization was created in 1982 and was named executive director in November 1991. He retired from the organization in March 1998, a couple of months after turning 70 years old.
Colleagues described him as blunt, pragmatic and street-smart.
John W. Bates III, a lawyer with McGuireWoods who is the longtime general counsel to Venture Richmond and Richmond Renaissance, said Mr. Townes continued to provide valuable guidance to the organization even after his retirement.
“He was instrumental in not only the effectiveness (of Richmond) Renaissance as an engine for economic development downtown, but was also a critical part in building trust between the city’s AfricanAmerican leadership and the then predominantly white business community,” Bates said in a statement. “He was loved and trusted by all parts of our community for his insights, his balanced perspective, his upbeat manner and his sense of humor. His impact in both areas clearly shows today. He was a unique, talented man who will be greatly missed.”
Richmond City Council appointed Mr. Townes in January 1990 to serve on the School Board. During part of his tenure, he served as its chairman. He left the board in June 1994 when the city changed from an appointed School Board to an elected one and he decided not to run for elective office.
Mr. Townes was on the board of Consolidated Bank and Trust Co., the oldest African-American controlled bank in the United States.
He also served as commissioner of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and as a member and board chairman of the former Metropolitan Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, now called Richmond Tourism.
Wilder, who said he attended the same church as the Townes family while growing up, First African Baptist, said Mr. Townes’ upbringing instilled in him a sense of purpose. His father was the vice president of Virginia Mutual insurance company. His mother was active in church.
“You didn’t just exist,” Wilder said. “You didn’t just moan and groan about what was taking place. You did something about it. He was one of those people who believed in talking with people from both sides of the aisle, both races and all disciplines.”
Robert C. Bobb, a former Richmond city manager, counted Mr. Townes as both colleague and friend, recalling how they attended Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees games together over the years. Mr. Townes also became a mentor to Bobb’s oldest son while the youth attended Virginia Military Institute, Bobb said.
“He is family,” Bobb said of Mr. Townes.
“I came to Richmond in 1986 from California, and Clarence Townes was the one person, more than anyone in the city, who helped me to understand not only city government and the community, but how the culture of Richmond was significantly different from the experiences I had working in California,” Bobb said.
“He was the one person who made my transition — it wasn’t always smooth — but he certainly helped to make it work. … I can’t think of any one person besides Governor Wilder and Senator Marsh who did more to bridge the racial divide in Richmond,” Bobb said.
Mr. Townes’ leadership also included serving as a board member of the Virginia Commonwealth University Real Estate Foundation and as a Valentine museum board of trustees member.
Mr. Townes was predeceased by a son, Clarence Townes III.
His survivors include his wife, Grace Elizabeth Harris Townes of Richmond; children, Michael Townes of Hampton, Lisa Townes of Richmond and June Townes of New York; a brother, Clifton Townes of Richmond; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Clarence L. Townes Jr. helped create Richmond Renaissance, a precursor of Venture Richmond.