Lawrence Douglas Wilder was born in Richmond, Virginia, on January 17, 1931. The grandson of enslaved blacks, Douglas Wilder grew up the second youngest of eight children. His parents named him after the renowned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Wilder grew up in a racially segregated South and attended segregated schools throughout his youth. At age sixteen Wilder graduated from Armstrong High School and then from Virginia Union University with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1951.
After he graduated from the university, Wilder was drafted into the army and sent to Korea. During his time in Korea, Wilder earned a bronze star for leading a group of prisoners of war (POWs) through artillery fire in order to rescue American soldiers. After the war, Wilder became employed as a chemist for the state examiner's office. With the money he received from the government's G.I. Bill, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in order to study law. While a student, Wilder encountered several influential politicians, like the future mayor of Richmond Henry L. Marsh III and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Douglas Wilder earned his jurist doctorate in 1959, and returned to Richmond, Virginia, where he quickly started his own practice, which became Wilder, Gregory and Associates in 1961, at the height of the civil rights struggle. Wilder was personally involved in the civil rights struggle as a lawyer by refusing to sit in segregated courtrooms and by taking on civil rights cases.
In 1969, Wilder won election to the Senate of Virginia, making him the first African American senator in Virginia in the twentieth century. Wilder served sixteen years as a state senator. While a member of the General Assembly, Wilder chaired various committees, such as the Democratic Steering Committee and the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee. In 1984, Wilder led Virginia in the fight for a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., making Virginia the first southern state to honor a civil rights leader. The next year, Wilder was elected lieutenant governor. He was the first African American to win election to statewide office in Virginia. Four years later, he successfully ran for governor. In 1989, L. Douglas Wilder became the first elected black governor in the history of the United States. While serving as governor, Wilder helped balance the state budget and lobby for new construction projects to expand Virginia's universities, hospitals, and parks.
Wilder was elected Mayor of Richmond on November 2, 2004, and served one four-year term. After leaving the governor's office in January 1994, Wilder taught government as an adjunct faculty member for Virginia Commonwealth University's L. Douglas Wilder's School of Government and Public Affairs.