African American History Month Series
In honor of African American History Month, we are highlighting African Americans who have changed and impacted the City of Newport News.
Jessie Menifield Rattley
Ever wonder why the Newport News City Hall building was named after Jessie M. Rattley in November 2003? It’s because she served the people of Newport News, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the United States for nearly 50 years.
Jessie Menifield Rattley was born in Birmingham, Alabama but moved to the Virginia to attend Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). After graduating with honors in 1951 from Hampton Institute, she established the first business department at Huntington High School. In 1952, she founded the Peninsula Business College as the first post-secondary institution to offer business education and preparation to provide training opportunities for the Peninsula’s African-American community. Peninsula Business College offered classes in typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, accounting and preparation for the civil service exam. Passing of the civil service exam afforded students the opportunity to obtain employment with the federal government and helped to break the barrier of limited employment opportunities.
In 1970, she became the first woman elected to Newport News City Council and was re-elected in 1974, 1978, 1982 and 1986. In 1976 she was selected as vice mayor and in 1986 she became the first African American and first woman elected by fellow Council members as mayor of the City of Newport News. She urged the city to revitalize the Southeast community with improvements which included restoration of buildings, installation of sidewalks and benches, and the planting of flowers and trees. She successfully lobbied for federal funding which resulted in the construction of a 200-unit apartment complex named Walker Village. Rattley worked with fellow Council members
and federal and state agencies to construct the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, (known today as the Jefferson Lab) in the Oyster Point area of the city. This facility has attracted scientists and researchers from around the world. The projects spawned by Jefferson Lab have led to many new jobs and businesses. Because of her efforts, one of the streets in the Jefferson Lab complex, Rattley Road, was named in her honor.
Beyond Newport News, Rattley was also the first African American president of the Virginia Municipal League (1978), and the first African American woman to serve as president of the National League of Cities (1979) and president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (1989).