Posted: March 23, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

James H. Gilliam Sr., the face of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, plans to retire in June from the organization he started from scratch in 1999 and turned into a political, educational and economic force in northern Delaware.

Gilliam, a patriarchal figure in the state and especially the African-American community, will be 85 in August and ready to relax a little.

"Eight-five is old enough to retire," he said Tuesday. "I'm ready to give it up. I think it's important to know when to go, to quit when you're a little bit ahead."

Urban League officials are not saying publicly who will replace Gilliam as the chairman and chief executive officer, but they are expected to tap Jack A. Markell, the two-term Democratic state treasurer who currently serves on the board of directors.

Markell is away and could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

For Gilliam, the Urban League was the crowning contribution in a lifetime of groundbreaking endeavors in Delaware, beginning with his arrival from Baltimore in 1965 at the invitation of civic and governmental leaders trying to come to grips with the civil rights movement and urban needs.

Gilliam brought a background in housing and social work and also a gentle, reasonable, soft-spoken style. Although he worked at a variety of public, private and non-profit agencies, he spent the largest stretch of time at New Castle County as the director of the Community Development & Housing Department, which he ran from 1974 until his retirement in 1990 when he was 69.

In fact, once Gilliam steps down at the Urban League, he says he intends to stay involved with some volunteer work for New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons, a first-term Democrat.

Gilliam founded the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League as the 115th affiliate of the National Urban League to address educational, economic and community needs for people of color. It quickly became a million-dollar operation with broad support from corporations, foundations and governmental, business and community leaders.

Gilliam also leaves a legacy of bringing along the next generation of leadership, notably the two people who have run the Urban League as its president.

The first was 34-year-old Antoine J. "Tony" Allen, now an MBNA executive who increasingly is being mentioned as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2008.

The second is 43-year-old Lisa Blunt-Bradley, who came to the Urban League from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's Cabinet, where Blunt-Bradley served as labor secretary and personnel director for the two-term Democrat. Blunt-Bradley, like Allen, is regarded as a potential candidate for statewide office in Democratic circles.

If Markell, who is 44, takes over as chairman as anticipated, Gilliam's legacy will extend to someone considered as prime material for governor in 2008 and --who knows? -- maybe even to an entire gubernatorial ticket.

As state Democratic politics goes, a Markell-Allen slate is hardly farfetched.