Who is Jennifer McClellan? Legislator makes history as 1st Black woman elected to Congress in Virginia

The Democrat and daughter of civil rights activists is breaking barriers after clinching a win to represent Virginia in the U.S. Congress.

Jennifer McClellan.
Then-state Sen. Jennifer McClellan at a canvassing event in Richmond, Va., in December. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Jennifer McClellan made history, becoming the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in Virginia. McClellan, a Democrat, won a special election in the Fourth Congressional District, defeating Republican Leon Benjamin.

She is set to fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who died from colorectal cancer in November, just three weeks after he was reelected to his fourth term.

“This district over a hundred years ago sent John Mercer Langston to Congress as the first African American Virginian,” said the Virginia state senator on the night of her win. “This city helped send the second, Bobby Scott. Then we sent Donald McEachin. That is quite a legacy. And I look forward to building on that legacy.”

Here’s a look at who McClellan is and what her victory means for Virginia and the country.

McClellan comes from a legacy of service and segregation

McClellan speaks from a podium in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
McClellan at a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

McClellan was born on Dec. 28, 1972, in Petersburg, Va., to community leaders and educators. Her father, James McClellan Jr., was a professor at Virginia State University, a historically Black college. Her mother, Lois McClellan, worked as a counselor there. Both parents, raised in the segregated South in the Jim Crow era, became active in the civil rights movement. In 1901, McClellan's great-grandfather was forced to take a literacy test in Alabama and had to have three white people vouch for his character so he could register to vote. In 1947, her father paid a Tennessee poll tax.

“My parents lived in Arkansas, Kentucky and then Virginia between the 1950s and 1969 and were very active in the civil rights movement,” McClellan said in a campaign ad. “But they also felt the trauma themselves of Emmett Till being murdered, of Medgar Evers being murdered, of Martin Luther King being murdered.”

“It’s poetic justice, thinking about what not only my family has been through, but what our country has been through,” she told the Washington Post. “To be the first Black woman from Virginia, which was the birthplace of American democracy but also the birthplace of American slavery.”

McClellan is a wife and mother

The congresswoman-elect hugs her daughter at her election party in Richmond, Va.
The congresswoman-elect hugs her daughter at her election party in Richmond on Tuesday. (John C. Clark/AP)

Along with being the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in Virginia, McClellan in 2010 was the first Virginia delegate to serve in a legislative session while pregnant and to give birth while in office. She currently lives in Richmond with her husband, David Mills, and their two school-age children, Jackson and Samantha. Her 2008 wedding was officiated by her mentor, Sen. Tim Kaine.

McClellan has credited her dedication to public service to honoring her family and the future legacy of America.

“What struck me, now, when Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered, I felt that same trauma they felt,” she said of her parents and grandparents in her campaign ad. “And I realized I’m fighting the same fights that they fought, and my grandparents fought, and my great-grandparents fought. And I realized I have to do everything in my power to keep my children from fighting that fight.”

McClellan has continued to push for social justice through civic service

Jennifer McClellan speaks at a rally.
McClellan at a rally for an economic recovery and infrastructure package prioritizing climate, care, jobs and justice in 2021 in Williamsburg, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

McClellan first entered Virginia politics in 2006, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, where she represented the 71st District until 2017.

In January 2017, she was elected to the Virginia state Senate in a special election to fill the Ninth District seat vacated by McEachin’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a state senator, McClellan passed the Voting Rights Act of Virginia in 2021 — the first such act ever passed in a Southern state and modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. She has also expunged remnants of Jim Crow in Virginia by repealing antiquated segregation laws from 1901-1960 that were still in the state’s code until 2020. She led the effort to make Virginia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment; passed the Virginia Values Act, a bipartisan win that protects LGBTQ Virginians in employment, housing and public spaces; and passed legislation to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. She also passed the Reproductive Health Protection Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, reformed Virginia’s criminal justice system and expanded access to child care and tenant rights and protections.

In 2021, she ran for governor but lost the crowded primary race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who eventually lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin. If McClellan had won, she would have been the first woman to be elected governor of the state.

McClellan serves as the chair of Virginia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission — a bipartisan agency of the Virginia General Assembly — through which she honors King’s legacy by promoting community engagement, economic and social justice, as well as racial healing. Now she is looking forward to building on her own legacy, representing the state of Virginia.

“It still blows my mind that we’re having firsts in 2023,” McClellan told NBC News. “My ancestors fought really hard to have a seat at that table, and now not only will I have a seat at the table in Congress, I’ll be able to bring that policymaking table into communities that never really had a voice before.”