It was an extraordinary moment in time. President Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U2 frontman Bono were splashed across magazine covers as the world came to grips with missile threats, stock market crashes and reaching a global population of five billion people.
It was 1987, and in Little Rock, Arkansas, Lottie Holt Shackelford was also making history. The city had never had a female mayor before — a fact Shackelford knew well, having grown up in the city. She was born in Little Rock, graduating from the all-African-American Horace Mann High School after her senior year, the same year that saw the historic integration crisis take place at Little Rock’s Central High.
“We were constantly being encouraged to do our best,” Shackelford said of her parents and teachers at the time, “and even though things were going on that were not pleasant for the city, that didn’t have to impact who we were and what we could become.”
And that certainly held true for Shackelford. Her home was one that encouraged involvement, whether it be in school, church or community affairs, and she dove in headfirst. Her father often said, “If it’s a grouping of two more then Lottie’s gonna join it.”
“I’m a true Little Rock native,” Shackelford said proudly, and when her beloved Little Rock needed her help, she answered the call.
It all started with PTA. She joined the organization with many other parents at her first child’s school and quickly found she enjoyed the process and the group’s involvement with city government. What began with trips to city hall to secure park clean-ups and tennis court resurfacings turned into opportunities to serve a greater community.
After a failed run for a position on the Board of Directors for Little Rock in 1974, Shackelford was appointed to a vacant position four years later, eventually running and winning the seat in 1980, making her the first black candidate to secure a majority in a citywide race. Then, in 1987, Shackelford was elected Little Rock’s first female mayor, an honor that, when combined with her role as only the city’s second African-American mayor, afforded unique circumstances.
“While I didn’t realize it at the time, it was something that people across the country started to get involved with,” she said. “I got invited to do many things that mayors of Little Rock had never been involved in before.”
Shackelford received requests to everything from participating in forums at Harvard University and representing the city in Europe to countless local events and gatherings, particularly from Little Rock’s black community. She went on global tours speaking about electoral politics, local government and economic development.
She remembers it as a “very humbling experience,” recalling several instances when out-of-state visitors did a double take upon learning she was both a woman and African-American, or when someone in the chamber would address her as “Mr. Mayor” one too many times.
Nevertheless, Shackelford’s city supported her throughout her tenure as mayor through 1991. It was during this time that her work with the Democratic Party reached new heights. At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, she was named Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and in 1989 became the first African-American woman elected as officer when she won the role of Vice Chair of Voter Participation and Registration.
Throughout these accomplishments, Shackelford thought of the experiences as “pinch me” moments.
“Is this really me sitting here? Do I really hold this gavel at this time? Can I really call these folks to order?” she recalled asking herself. “Those are things that you don’t always think about growing up, but you do remember what your parents and teachers told you: You may not know the path you will travel, but you certainly need to be prepared to take advantage of whatever opportunity life affords you.”
And in 1993, life afforded her the opportunity to become the first African-American woman board member of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), an organization that encourages American businesses to do business in developing countries, as appointed by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate.
Her work for the DNC took Shackelford around the world, but the one trip that left a lasting mark was her visit to South Africa immediately after the abolishment of apartheid and a chance to meet legendary apartheid opponent and eventual South African President Nelson Mandela.
“To see the enthusiasm and the we-can-do-it spirit of the people, and just the excitement and the fortitude that they showed in the sense of being able to govern,” she said, “to be able to walk on some of the areas that Mandela walked on and to be able to meet him, that just makes chills run down your spine.”
For Shackelford, however, her sights are always set forward — to the next task, the next hurdle, the next generation. She cherishes the fact that her children and grandchildren watched Barack Obama receive a presidential nomination, that her 88-year-old mother had an opportunity to cast a vote for an African-American president and that now a woman accepted the same nomination from a major party for the first time.
“I’m still just so thankful that I’m living in this period of time with all of these exciting things, change-of-life experiences, first time changes for this America I so dearly love,” Shackelford said.
Over the years, Shackelford’s love for her country, her city and her community have led her to participation and leadership in many organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and The Southern Youth Leadership Development Institute. In 1998, she helped found the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, and in 1993 was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.
Shackelford is a retired federal lobbyist and is currently Vice Chair Emeritus of the DNC and Chair of the DNC Women’s Caucus. She holds a degree in business administration from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, was a senior fellow at the Arkansas Institute of Politics and a fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
But each new title and each new award holds deep importance for Shackelford as a powerful reminder of progress and foresight.
“It’s so easy for us to make excuses for why we don’t do something or why we don’t achieve something. It’s easy for us to blame it on someone else. The responsibility is ours,” she said. “You have to earn the space you occupy in this world.”
And at every level of national or neighborhood movement, the unique space Shackelford occupies with poise and influence is ever evolving for the betterment of tomorrow.
“It’s never about what I have done,” she said, “it’s about what I still have yet to do.”
Discover more about the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame Class of 2016.