Larry Womble, an educator and advocate for minorities who held elected positions in Winston-Salem and Raleigh, has died at the age of 78. He had been in declining health for a number of years, longtime family friend Jennifer Long said, and died Thursday at his home.
"He was just an all-around good, humanitarian person," Long said.
Womble’s political career spanned more than three decades but ended when he was injured in a car crash that killed the driver of another car.
"On behalf of the citizens of Winston-Salem, I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of former State Rep. Larry Womble," Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said in a statement. "Rep. Womble had been a strong voice for the rights of the underprivileged while he served on the board of aldermen and later as a state representative.
"We remember his work as an alderman in pushing for downtown development of residential housing many, many years ago before it became an accepted concept," Joines said.
Womble was born June 6, 1941 in Winston-Salem. After completing his studies at Atkins High School, he enrolled in Winston-Salem State University, graduating in 1963.
He returned to the Winston-Salem public school system as a teacher and remained in education while his political career flourished.
A loss and a win
Civic involvement came naturally to him. He was known as a community organizer for leading an effort to improve conditions at the rundown Columbia Terrace neighborhood off Stadium Drive (now called Rams Drive).
He made his first run for office in 1977, running for a seat on the Board of Alderman (now City Council) in the racially mixed Southeast Ward.
He forced a runoff in the Democratic primary with incumbent Eugene F. Groce. The showdown became racially charged when Groce sent a letter to white voters noting that “our black citizens” had a higher turnout than whites in the primary and that he needed support from white voters to win. Womble was black. Groce was white.
Womble supporters blasted the letter as racist. Groce insisted it was a compliment to black voters for their turnout. Groce prevailed in the runoff.
For Womble, 1981 was a milestone year. In May, the North Carolina Association of Educators named him the Assistant Principal of the Year. The group cited his community activism for his work with such local groups as the Experiment in Self-Reliance, the Arts Council, the NAACP and the Forsyth county library board. At the time, Womble served as the Cassistant principal of Old Town Elementary.
That same month, Womble announced he’d once again challenge Groce for alderman. This time Womble faced an additional challenge. Realignment had shifted the ward, leaving it with fewer minorities. The shift appeared to favor Groce.
Yet Womble won the September primary against Groce and three other challengers. It was another close race. He won by fewer than 100 votes. In defeat, Groce once again turned to racial disparity in the turnout.
“The blacks got out and voted, and the whites didn’t,” Groce said at the time.
Womble would go on to win the general election against Republican R. Dale Catlett, becoming the first black alderman in the ward’s history. For years he served as the only black alderman from a majority white ward.
Over the next 12 years, Womble worked to improve conditions for his ward while earning a reputation as a loquacious gadfly during board meetings, speaking up for the poor, minorities and those he felt the city neglected.
He could be longwinded in both praise and condemnation. Fellow Alderman Robert Northington would become so annoyed by Womble’s effusive rhetoric during meetings that he would swivel his chair to turn his back to him.
In 1987 Womble argued that the name of the Dixie Classic Fair should be changed, saying the throwback “Dixie” connotation was not acceptable to certain segments of society.
“It’s just like the Confederate flag,” he told the Journal. “The flag does not do anything to harm me or my psyche, but what does it represent?”
It would be another 32 years before city council voted to drop the word “Dixie” from the fair’s name.
Cleared in probe
In the summer before the 1989 city elections, word broke that Womble was among a group of five politicians that federal authorities were investigating for political corruption.
His Republican opponent, Dale Folwell, didn’t make the probe a campaign issue. Womble hung on to win by 75 votes. Despite the loss, Folwell would go on to a lengthy political career that includes serving as state treasurer.
The investigation dragged on almost throughout the entirety of his next term. The school board transferred him from his assistant principal position at Kennedy Middle School to an administrative post focusing on building maintenance and energy conservation.
The charges involved more than $2,000 in charitable contributions. A jury acquitted Womble in 1992. Two co-defendants, former Alderman Patrick T. Hairston and Rodney J. Sumler, were convicted of conspiracy to extort money from businesses that had issues before the city board.
The following year, when Winston-Salem officials applied to be named an “All-America City,” Womble wrote a letter in protest, saying the city didn’t deserve the designation.
He wrote that the city was “sitting on a powder keg” in the way it treated minorities, and the recognition would have shallow meaning and no substance.
He never meant the letter to become public. When it did, it set off a powder keg of its own.
The city – which had won the award in 1959 and 1964 – lost the bid that year, and Womble took much of the blame.
Robert Nordlinger, then a 22-year-old accountant and political novice, was so angered that he filed to challenge Womble for his seat on the board. Running as a Republican, Nordlinger beat Womble in the biggest surprise of the 1993 municipal elections.
“In the last four years Womble has shot himself in the foot,” Nordlinger said when the results came in. “I was just there to give the Southeast Ward an alternative.”
On the loss, Womble said he was proud of the changes that were made for his constituents and that he tried to articulate the residents’ needs to the city. “I try to make government personal for them,” he said.
He wouldn’t be out of politics long. The next year, Womble ran for state House in what was then the 66th District after incumbent Annie B. Kennedy announced her retirement.
The district was so overwhelmingly Democratic that the GOP couldn’t find anyone to run. Womble won without opposition and would hold the seat for the next 18 years.
His tenure as a lawmaker would be marked by two major efforts.
In 2002, the Journal ran a series of articles on the state’s shameful eugenics program. More than 7,000 girls and young women had been targeted for sterilization – often against their will – under the idea that society would be better off if they didn’t reproduce.
Administrators could target young women for dubious reasons. They could be rendered childless because someone considered them “feeble-minded” or doubted their moral integrity. Many were poor and black.
Outraged, Womble became a staunch ally of the victims of the defunct program, reflecting his long-running commitment to those who felt invisible before the government. In 2005, he filed the first of many bills to get compensation for the victims.
He would find that many fellow legislators supported the victims verbally, but less so financially.
Still, he pressed on.
“I’ll do like (U.S. Rep.) John Conyers did when he kept filing bills to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday,” Womble said in 2007. “It took 20 years before we got King Day, and I’ll do the same here.”
The effort moved so slowly that the victims didn’t start getting their money until after Womble ended his last term.
"Larry Womble will be forever known as the tireless champion for the victims of North Carolina’s shameful eugenics and sterilization program," U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said in a statement. "Larry was relentless in shining a light on one of the darkest moments of our state’s history, and he never backed down and never gave up in the pursuit of justice."
When Tillis served as the leader of the N.C. House, he supported Womble's bill to compensate the victims of the eugenics program.
"Larry had a heart of gold and epitomized what it means to be a servant leader," Tillis said. "Susan and I are deeply saddened to lose such a great man, and we send our deepest condolences to Larry’s family."
Womble was also the leading House advocate for the Racial Justice Act, a controversial measure that allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences on the grounds of racial bias.
Gov. Bev Perdue signed the measure into law in 2009. Critics called it a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” and soon unintended consequences emerged. Almost everyone on North Carolina’s death row, white and black, including Forsyth County’s notorious serial poisoner Blanche Taylor Moore, appealed based on the new law. The law was repealed in 2013, a year after Womble’s House career ended.
Seriously injured in wreck
On the night of Dec. 2, 2011, Womble left home and got on Reynolds Park Road toward downtown for a banquet. David Carmichael, 54, had left downtown after having drinks.
Their two cars collided on Reynolds Park Road. Carmichael was killed. Womble survived but was seriously injured. Like much of his political career, the crash would be imbued with controversy.
Witnesses told police that Womble had crossed into Carmichael’s lane, and he was charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle. But a crash reconstruction indicated that it was Carmichael who made the fateful move.
Add to the fact that Carmichael had a blood-alcohol level way above the legal limit, while Womble had no alcohol in his system.
The charges were dropped.
That wouldn’t be the end of it though. Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham publicly defended the department’s original conclusion that Womble was at fault.
“Our initial investigation was not flawed,” Cunningham said.
The comments drew a rebuke from Councilwoman Vivian Burke, and Cunningham would retire that year. But for many, the split among investigators would allow questions about the crash to linger.
Womble spent much of 2012 recovering from his injuries. With little time to campaign and facing significant health issues, Womble decided not to run for re-election.
His political career was effectively over.
Womble was married twice, first to Lonnie Hamilton Womble in 1965. The pair divorced four years later. In 2019, he married Violet Sabatia, and she was at his side when he died, according to Alan Doorasamy Sr., Womble's attorney.
His son, Jamaal Womble, was often at his side when Womble would be honored for his career service.
Jamaal Womble was close to his father, Long said, and rarely left his father's room in the weeks after the accident.
"Larry would fight injustice where he saw it," she said. "He was just a good person."
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Larry Womble: A timeline
June 6, 1941
June 6, 1941: Womble is born in Winston-Salem.
1959: Womble graduates from Atkins High School. He goes on to get his bachelor's degree from Winston-Salem Teachers College (now Winston-Salem State University), a master's degree in education from UNC Greensboro, and an education specialist's degree from Appalachian State University.
1977: Womble makes his first run for the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen, but loses in a Democratic primary runoff.
1981: Womble, by now an assistant principal at Old Town Elementary School, wins election to the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen representing the Southeast Ward.
1991: Womble and two other men are indicted on federal charges of conspiring to extort donations from businessmen in exchange for favorable votes on zoning decisions and contracts. Womble stays on the city board.
May 15, 1992
May 15, 1992: Womble is acquitted.
1993: Womble loses his seat on the city board to Robert Nordlander, but it is close: Womble gets 48 percent of the vote to Nordlander's 52 percent.
1994: Womble runs unopposed for his first N.C. House term.
2003: At Womble's urging, the N.C. House formally ends a program that for decades allowed the involuntary sterilization of people who had been deemed unfit to reproduce. Womble works to get compensation for victims over the following years.
2007: Womble first introduces what later becomes law in 2009 as the Racial Justice Act, which allows for people on death row to use statistical evidence that race may have played a factor in their punishment.
October 2011: Womble wins support from House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, for compensating sterilization victims.
Dec. 2, 2011
Dec. 2, 2011: Womble is critically injured in a head-on collision in which the other driver is killed. Womble later tests negative for alcohol use.
Feb. 7, 2011
Feb. 7, 2011: Womble leaves Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to go to a rehabilitation center.
Feb. 21, 2011
Feb. 21, 2011: Womble announces he won't run for re-election, and endorses Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, for the N.C. Senate District 32 seat he had planned to seek.
May 2012: Womble is charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle in the crash that killed David Carmichael, 54.
Nov. 12, 2012
Nov. 12, 2012: Womble is cleared of charges stemming from the 2011 car crash. An investigation, including an accident reconstruction, showed that the other driver had crossed into Womble’s path, causing the collision, said David Freedman, Womble’s attorney.
May 14, 2020
May 14, 2020: Womble dies at the age of 78.
Journal reporters John Hinton and Lee Sanderlin contributed to this story.