Educator, Mayor (1911–2002)
Born on the Fourth of July in 1911, in Roper, North Carolina, E.V. Wilkins went on to become a teacher and principal at J.J. Clemmons High School, where he was active in raising money for bus services for African-American students. He later helped institute voting rights for black citizens in his county and was elected the first African-American mayor of Roper in the mid-1970s. The recipient of many awards, Wilkins died on June 2, 2002, at age 90.
Early Life and Career
Elmer Vanray Wilkins was born on July 4, 1911, in Roper, North Carolina, the second of 10 children born to Maggie and Tom Wilkins. The young Wilkins went on to attend North Carolina Central University, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, before returning to his home town to teach math at J.J. Clemmons High School (also known as Washington County Union School). There, he met his future spouse, fellow educator Elizabeth Witherspoon.
Principal and Activist
E.V. Wilkins became principal of Clemmons High in the early 1940s and held the position for more than three decades, until 1974. His care for his students transcended pre-existing bureaucracy as he actively raised money to provide a school bus for African-American children beginning in 1946, whereas previously only white students had transportation services.In the following years, Wilkins worked with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to file a lawsuit and institute voting rights for African-American citizens in his community of Washington County—which was made a reality in the mid-1950s.
Wilkins officially entered politics when he won a seat on Roper’s town council in 1967, thus becoming the first African-American elected official in the region since the days of Reconstruction. After helming the town’s Industrialization Center from 1974 to ’75, Wilkins won the area’s mayoral election, thus becoming the first African-American mayor of Roper—a seat that he would hold for the next 20 years.
Wilkins was involved in politics on a national level as well, becoming a delegate to the Democratic National Convention throughout the 1970s and ’80s. He was thus part of the nominating process for presidential candidates such as Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. He was also active on boards for a number of civic organizations and educational institutions, including East Carolina University’s Rural Education Institute and North Carolina’s education and railroad services.
Death and Family Legacy
The recipient of many awards and dedications, including posthumous honors, E.V. Wilkins died in Roper on June 2, 2002, at 90 years old. He was survived by his daughters, Joy Price and Bunny Sanders, with Bunny later serving as mayor of Roper as well. Her son, Scott Sanders, is a movie director and screenwriter known for working on episodes of the sitcom A Different World, and for film projects like Thick as Thieves (1999) and Black Dynamite (2009).