Click Here to Play Audio


By Leah Small
The Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO

Georgia Allen, 70, remembers growing up during segregation in Pleasant Ridge, a sleepy, agricultural community in southern Virginia Beach. Her family bought groceries at the local country store, where her parents suffered the indignities of white customers always being served ahead of them.

But as a young girl, Allen wasn’t aware of it because her mother would find ways to distract her during shopping trips. Before Allen walked to the counter with her chosen toy or candy, her mother would say, “Come here a minute, are you sure you want that?”

“She would keep us busy, I ultimately realized later in life that you know, my mom was creative,” Allen said. “She was making sure we weren’t experiencing it (racism) as much as other people.”

Virginia Voices no logoWHRO

Allen is now a civil rights activist and long time member of the Virginia Beach branch of the NAACP, having served as branch president from 2001 to 2012.

In 2021, she was a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that successfully changed the local election system in Virginia Beach after decades of underrepresentation for the city’s Black residents. In most cities, people living within voting districts elect city council members from within their districts to represent them in local office. But Virginia Beach had a system in which council members must win elections citywide, instead of solely within their districts.

This voting system prevented the election of candidates preferred by voters of color, plaintiffs argued. The city of Virginia Beach, created in 1963 by a merger between Princess Anne County and Virginia Beach, did not have its first Black city councilmember until 1986. Before the lawsuit, it had had only five Black city councilmembers in its history.

A federal district court barred the city from at-large voting, except for mayor, and approved ten new voting districts. The result was the election of the most diverse city council in Virginia Beach history in 2022.

Following a series of legal challenges to the ruling, the Virginia General Assembly voted this year to keep in place changes to the city’s election system.

Allen recently applied to fill a vacant seat on the Virginia Beach School Board, but was not selected. She still plans to be active.

The way her mother chose to stand against racism inspired her activism.

“My mother was very tactical, and that’s the difference in seniors of that age group; they watched everything that was going on around them,” Allen said. “They maneuvered through this horrible system in a manner that kept their dignity.”

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I always say, I pick and I choose my fights. I'm not going to fight every fight. I'm going to pick and choose because I pick to win. I don't pick to just have a fight. I ended up finding my home and finding my passion with the NAACP. There was just something about what they were doing in the civil rights community that drew me in and I have been there ever since.

I stayed as president for about ten years. And then after I was no longer president, I remained with the organization. Currently I'm the first vice president (of the Virginia Beach NAACP branch), and I'm also the religious affairs person chairperson.

Our initial fights were just trying to teach and develop our young people. Later, one of the things that I pushed for in the city of Virginia Beach was fairness in the hiring practices when it comes to the police and fire department. If you look at police and fire departments throughout the country, most of them are people from families of (police and) firefighters.

And so we noticed that in the city of Virginia Beach, we have a lot of Stolle’s in the city of Virginia Beach; they're Virginia House of Delegate members. They were state senators. And so all the families look the same. And then they hired friends of friends. Well, if you don't associate with other people, then the only people that you're going to hire are people who look like you.

We worked on hiring practices, and that was throughout the city. We started having more department heads that were Black, both male and female. We started seeing some changes in the police department. Still, we got a lot of work to do.

Mostly, there were polite roadblocks. They used things to push back. There are just impediments that are preventing (Black men and women) from becoming police officers. So we heard that a lot.

(Changing voting in Virginia Beach) started with a young lady by the name of Latasha Holloway. She was concerned that her children were being mistreated in the school system. She went to the school system to try to get assistance. She couldn't get assistance within the school that her children were attending, and she couldn't get assistance from the school board itself.

She then went to her next elected official. Because of the way we were structured, you could run in the district that you live in, but the entire city was able to vote for you. That presented a huge problem, because we found out that there could be areas where they would have three councilmembers living within blocks of each other because of this large district mechanism.

That means, technically, you really didn't have representation depending upon where you lived. And so as she reached out, she couldn't get assistance. So she then decided that she would go ahead and sue the city. Well, I signed on to the lawsuit once it got started.

(Voting rights in Virginia Beach have) been an issue for quite some time, even back to the 1990s. I’ve worked on it. One of the things that I did was run for office in 2005, but I ran for the House of Delegates. The person that was in the House of Delegates had been there probably close to 17 years. And I did very, very well. I got close to 40% of the vote as a first time candidate.

It was obvious that the people themselves wanted something different. And so after that, in 2008, I ran for city council and, of course, I ran again against a long time incumbent. But during that period of time we were trying to get the General Assembly to take a look at how Virginia Beach was set up in regard to the election system.

We went before the General Assembly to try to get the city to change. We started a group called Community Coalition for a Better Virginia Beach, and we pulled all the nonwhite groups together. We looked at the fact that over the years, we never had reelected one Black person to city council. We elected them one time, but over the years never had a Black person been reelected to city council in the history of Virginia Beach.

And then in 2019, Latasha Holloway filed her lawsuit. And so, when she filed the lawsuit, she was on it by herself. It wasn't looking like it was a strong enough lawsuit. Well, you know how sometimes God puts you in a certain place at a certain time? I didn't realize running for office might be beneficial to a lawsuit years later, but it showed that a favorite candidate of the community could not get elected. Whether it was in a district or on a state level, or whether it was in a citywide election. It was very difficult for the community choice candidate to get elected.

We ultimately won the lawsuit, and it opened doors. A lot of times when people see our community, fighting for issues, they don't recognize how valuable that fight can be for them as well. I would talk to people and I said, you do recognize as a white person that your son or daughter or grandchildren are now able to run for office without it costing them $100,000, $200,000, just to run for a seat on City Council? (At-large campaigns) are very expensive.

The city did appeal the lawsuit. And then after the city appealed, everything became moot because the General Assembly said there will be no more at-large voting in our local cities and counties.

I (applied to fill an open seat on the) school board. I’m hoping to have an impact on the children. I get all the time, well, we need you on City Council. I say no, I need to be with the younger generations because if I can impact the children than ultimately, I impact the citizenry. They’re going to be making decisions for me when I become 80 or 90 years old. I want to have an impact on how they are taught and how they envision things.

I am absolutely doing exactly what I want to do. And that is to have an impact on not just the Black community, but on the community at large. And I say the community at large, because I think we do ourselves a disservice to sit here and have infighting because it's not moving us where we need to go. I can't fix it all, but I definitely want to make sure I'm working toward improving things.

Reach Leah Small at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..