College student accuses former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder of sexual harassment

A student who worked with L. Douglas Wilder at the Virginia Commonwealth University school named for the former governor reported to the university and police that Wilder sexually harassed her by kissing her without consent.

The woman, Sydney Black, 22, said Wilder, 88, also suggested she could live at his house and offered to take her on foreign trips and pay for her law school in 2017, while she still worked as an office assistant at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

VCU officials cited privacy concerns and declined to answer a series of detailed questions.

“VCU seeks to protect the privacy of students and employees, in accordance with state and federal law,” university spokesman Mike Porter said in a statement. “Likewise, VCU does not disclose information about university investigations including whether or not an investigation is underway.”

But VCU sent Black a letter formally notifying her that the school’s Title IX office intended to investigate.

The four-page letter, dated Jan. 28 and titled “Notice of Investigation,” lays out Black’s allegations, which match her interviews with The Washington Post, and includes a case number.

The allegations against Wilder come at a fraught time in Virginia. The governor and attorney general have admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s, and the lieutenant governor is facing accusations from two women of sexual assault in 2000 and 2004.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has said the encounters were consensual and called on law enforcement to investigate.

Wilder is a historic figure in Virginia and nationwide. Named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, he grew up amid segregation in Richmond, the onetime capital of the Confederacy. The grandson of slaves rose to become the first elected African American governor of any state.

Three decades later, he is revered as an elder statesman who speaks his mind without regard to party.

Black, who is African-American, said she grappled with filing a report that could tarnish his legacy and bring negative attention to herself.

“I had to choose being a woman over being black,” she said.

Wilder has called for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign over the blackface. He has not commented publicly about the accusations of sexual assault against Fairfax.

Wilder did not respond to repeated requests for comment over several weeks, including numerous messages left on his cellphone and with his assistant. He also did not answer emails or respond to notes at his two homes and his VCU office. The Post also sent certified letters with detailed questions to his home and office.

Black said in interviews that on her 20th birthday on Feb. 16, 2017, Wilder took her to dinner to celebrate, gave her alcohol and invited her back to his Richmond condo, where he kissed her. She was a student at VCU at the time, working at the Wilder school as an hourly employee.

Three months after that encounter, Wilder told Black that funding for her hourly position had lapsed, Black said. She withdrew from college in the fall of 2018 and re-enrolled this semester.

“I was deceived,” she said. “I thought he was a different sort of person.”

Black reported the alleged incident to the university in December 2018. The university directed Black to speak with Richmond Police Detective Eric Livengood. The university would not say why officials directed Black to Livengood.

The detective confirmed he spoke to Black but did not answer questions. “A report was filed,” Livengood said. “I am lead investigator for it. The report and anything included in it, I won’t be able to disclose.”

A redacted two-page police incident report dated Jan. 3 says a 20-year-old woman reported that an assault had occurred Feb. 16, 2017, in a residence in the same block where Wilder owns a condo. The box for “victim’s name” and the detective’s identification number are redacted. Black said she does not have a copy of the incident report.

Two days after Black contacted VCU in December 2018, Emily Caputo, civil rights investigations manager at VCU, sent a letter marked “sensitive and private” that said VCU’s Title IX office determined that the conduct Black reported “could possibly” meet the definitions of sexual assault or sex- or gender-based discrimination outlined in VCU policies.

In an email last month, the deputy Title IX coordinator for students at VCU, Tammi Slovinsky, told Black that an “external attorney-investigator with specialized training and experience” had been assigned to her case.

Black told family members of the alleged incident in the days immediately after. Black’s mother, Margo Stokes of Roanoke, and her grandmother, Pauline Carver of Wytheville, said Black called them independently and told them Wilder gave her alcohol and tried to kiss her.

“He just took a lot from Sydney when he did this because she really admired him, and so did I,” Carver said.

Black said she became depressed as she agonized for almost two years over whether to report Wilder, who is paid $150,000 annually as a distinguished professor at the school.

Black said she worried about the influence someone with Wilder’s power and connections could have over her education and feared he already had caused her to lose her job. The pain of seeing him on campus contributed to her decision to temporarily withdraw from classes, she said.

Black was raised primarily in Roanoke and lived in Conyers, Georgia, for a time before returning to her home state for college. She is the oldest of six children.

She began working as an office assistant at the Wilder school through the work-study program in November 2015 and was hired as an hourly employee in the summer of 2016, she said.

As she got to know Wilder, Black said, she was excited that a leader whom she admired was taking an interest in her education.

When he invited her to dinner at the Boathouse, a riverfront restaurant in Richmond, to celebrate her birthday she assumed they would discuss her career goals.

During the dinner, she said, he ordered her meal and vodka martinis – what he was drinking – even though she told him she was not legally allowed to drink. He told her he could help her get accepted at the Howard University School of Law, where he is a board member.

Black said she was shocked but didn’t dismiss his offers. “I was also thinking this man has the key to my future,” she said.

She said that when she asked him what he wanted in return, he was vague and said, “As long as you stick with me, you should be fine.”

“Honestly, I didn’t know how to feel,” she said later. “It was kind of surreal at that point.”

Black said Wilder drove her to his nearby condo to see a view of the James River and his African-American art collection.

Black said she was drunk and that she noticed his behavior changed after he drank but that it didn’t occur to her to stop him from driving her to the condo.

Inside, he poured them both glasses of champagne and they sat on a small couch in front of a large window, she said.

As they talked, she said, “he reached over and put his hand on my right leg, and I just kind of looked at him, and as soon as I looked at him, he kissed me on my mouth. I immediately jerked away.”

She said she questioned Wilder right away: “Why would you do something like that? I don’t know why you felt comfortable doing that.”

According to Black, he said, “You’re right, I shouldn’t have.” Black said she responded, “Right, so take me home.”

He drove her back to her car at the restaurant. “From that point forward, I was scared of him,” she said.

But, she said, he later acknowledged he had hurt her and invited her to brunch in March 2017 to apologize. When she arrived at the address he gave her in Charles City County, about an hour from Richmond, she soon realized it was his home.

He gave her champagne and showed her a room in the house where he said she could live, rent free, she said. No one at VCU would have to know, he told her, according to Black.

He also offered to help her get into and pay for Howard’s law school and to take her on trips to Paris and Atlanta, she said.

“I was kind of freaked out about it,” she said. Black said she declined Wilder’s offers and told him she was looking for a mentorship, not a personal relationship.

She said she pointed out their age difference and questioned him about what he was seeking. According to Black, he said he didn’t want to marry her but sought her companionship.

“At some point during the conversation, I realized it was never going to be the mentorship I wanted,” she said. “He wanted something more than that.”

They had little contact until May 2017, at a lunch for Wilder school employees at Edo’s Squid, an Italian restaurant near VCU. There, Wilder told Black there no longer was funding for her position, she said.

As time passed, she said, she had trouble coping with how Wilder treated her and had trouble paying for school. She withdrew from classes in the fall of 2018.

“It was just something that was on my mind every single day,” she said. “I would relive those moments, go back to that night. I was depressed.”

Black filed a complaint with VCU on Dec. 11, 2018, almost two years after their dinner.

“I have been hesitant to report this incident because I was afraid of the power this individual possessed over my career and education,” she said in an email to the university. Up to that point, she added, she hadn’t felt “psychologically ready” to file a police report “because I know that I am dealing with a very powerful individual.”

Caputo, the VCU civil rights investigations manager, contacted her and, Black said, she explained what happened by phone the next day.

On Dec. 13, Caputo sent her a letter saying the conduct she reported “could possibly constitute Non-Consensual Sexual Contact and Sex- or Gender-Based Discrimination” based on the school’s policy.

Caputo also connected her with Livengood, the police detective, and Slovinsky, the Title IX coordinator, who helped her re-enroll in classes.

On Feb. 19, Slovinsky sent Black an email with the name of an investigator assigned to the case. Black said the investigator interviewed her on campus on March 13.

In the meantime, Black said, she can’t stand to see Wilder’s autobiography, “Son of Virginia,” which he gave her at his condo.

He signed it, “To Sydney, With best hopes for the best you can be . . . and you will be.”

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