The first Black woman in the Mississippi Legislature now has her portrait in the state Capitol

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Rep. Alyce Clarke was the first Black woman elected to the Mississippi Legislature, and now she is the first Black person — and first woman — to have a portrait on display in the state Capitol.

She smiled Tuesday as fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters honored her during a ceremony to unveil the oil painting, which has a prominent spot in the room where the House Education Committee meets.

Clarke, an 84-year-old Democrat from Jackson, served 39 years before deciding not to seek reelection in 2023.

“Thank God, I’ve had more good days than I’ve had bad days,” she said during a ceremony. “And I’d just like to thank everybody who’s here. I’d like to help everybody who’s helped me to get here because I did nothing by myself.”

Other portraits in the Mississippi Capitol are of former governors and former House speakers, who were all white men.

The artist, Ryan Mack, said he based the portrait on a photo of Clarke from the mid-1980s.

“I’m a true believer and witness of the good she has done,” Mack said, citing her work on education and nutrition programs.

The first Black man to win a seat in the Mississippi Legislature in the 20th century was Robert Clark, no relation, a Democrat from Ebenezer who was elected to the House in 1967. He retired in December 2003, and a state government building in downtown Jackson was named for him the following year.

Alyce Clarke won a March 1985 special election, and another Black woman, Democrat Alice Harden of Jackson, won a seat in the Mississippi Senate two years later.

Several other Black women have since been elected to Mississippi’s 122-member House and 52-member Senate, but women remain a small minority in both chambers.

Clarke pushed early in her legislative career to establish Born Free, a drug and alcohol treatment center for pregnant women. In the 1990s, she led an effort to establish Mississippi’s first drug courts, which provide supervision, drug testing and treatment services to help keep people out of prison.

She was instrumental in establishing a state lottery. Clarke filed lottery bills for 19 years before legislators voted in 2018 to create a lottery to help pay for highways. The House and Senate named the legislation the Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Law. When lottery tickets went on sale in 2019, Clarke bought the ceremonial first ticket at a Jackson convenience store.

Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez said Tuesday that Clarke was persistent in seeking support for her alma mater, Alcorn State University. He recalled meeting with a legislative leader about university funding, and he knew Clarke would ask if he had advocated for the historically Black school.

“I opened the door and came out, and who is standing outside the door? Ms. Clarke,” Johnson said. “I’m going to tell you: The city of Jackson, the drug courts, the lottery and Alcorn State University — nobody had a better champion than Alyce Clarke.”