Willie W. Herenton

Class of 1988

  • Former Mayor City of Memphis, Tennessee

Don't allow obstacles to place a ceiling on your ability to dream.

Born in Memphis in 1940, Willie Herenton grew up in the South during an era of racial segregation. His parents were separated, and he and his sister were raised by their mother and grandmother. Living in a tough neighborhood where physical prowess was needed for survival, Herenton looked up to black athletes such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jackie Robinson. It seemed to him that those men had achieved the pinnacle of success. "In my neighborhood, virtually all the people who worked performed manual labor," he says. "There weren't any blacks there who had reached professional status."

By age 11, Herenton was participating in a boxing program at the local YMCA. In his first year, he went to the semifinals. The following year, he won the flyweight title. By the time he graduated from high school in 1958, Herenton had won several southern Amateur Athletic Union championships as well as the Kentucky Golden Gloves, and he had been Tri-State Boxing Champion four times. He was offered a four-year boxing scholarship to the University of Wisconsin but turned it down and moved to Chicago to become a professional boxer. Later, he realized he would need an education to have lasting success. He accepted a scholarship to LeMoyne College, a small black liberal arts school in Memphis.

In school, Herenton met his future wife, Ida, and discovered that he enjoyed working with young people. He focused on becoming a teacher. "It was one of the few avenues of professional endeavor open to blacks," he says. At the age of 21, he was hired as a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. After one year of teaching, he attended Memphis State University to earn a master's degree.

At 28, Herenton was appointed principal of the school he had attended as a child, thereby becoming the youngest principal ever hired in Memphis. He earned his doctorate at Southern Illinois University and served a one-year fellowship that prepared minorities for leadership roles in urban school districts. By 1979, he was named superintendent of Memphis. In 1991, Herenton made history as the first African American to be elected mayor of Memphis. Twelve years later, he made history again as the first Memphis mayor to be elected to four consecutive terms in office.

In 2002, American City & County magazine named him Municipal Leader of the Year. During his tenure, which ended in 2009, he was a catalyst for significant change to the city's social economic and physical landscape. Under his leadership, Memphis realized a 30-year dream and secured its first major professional sports franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies. Downtown Memphis has become the mid-South's entertainment mecca with state-of-the art sports and entertainment facilities.

Asked what it takes to be successful, Herenton says, "Success requires the self-discipline to set a goal and the tenacity to stick to it. Sometimes you get knocked down. But if you stay down, they'll count you out. If you get up, you have a chance to win."