Richmond civic leader helped ‘bridge the racial di­vide’

CLARENCE L. TOWNES JR. 1928-2017

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY TAMMIE SMITH

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.

Mr. Townes

FAM­ILY PHOTO

Clarence L. Townes Jr. helped cre­ate Richmond Re­nais­sance, a pre­cur­sor of Ven­ture Richmond.

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