RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Yvonne B. Miller, who shattered racial and gender barriers simultaneously as the first African-American woman elected to Virginia's state Legislature, died Tuesday, one day shy of her 78th birthday.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Don McEachin said Miller died at her Norfolk home around 3 p.m. She was a career educator and an outspoken advocate for Virginia's poor and minorities in the General Assembly.
Miller broke the combined gender and color barrier in 1983 when she was the first black woman to win a seat in Virginia's House of Delegates, the oldest continuously meeting legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
Four years later, she did the same by winning a seat in the state Senate.
Miller ascended from obscurity, when neither women nor minorities had a voice in the Legislature, to a seat on the budget-writing Finance Committee and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Her cancer took a noticeable toll in the past year, forcing extended absences from her Senate seat during the 2011 and 2012 sessions.
Miller's death provoked bipartisan expressions of loss and sympathy across Virginia government. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell tweeted a statement calling her "a great American." U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, the first elected black member of Congress from Virginia, called Miller "a stalwart champion of civil rights" who "paved the way for others to follow not only with her words but with her actions."
"For me, she was a trailblazer and a role model and an adviser," said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. "Even some things I didn't want to hear but needed to hear, she'd say them."
Locke said that in her final visit with Miller last week, "she was still giving directives about what I should be doing."
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle of Hanover said that for Miller, public service "was not a career but a mission." Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, also called Miller a "trailblazer" and recalled her "fiery spirit."
"I have spent my entire Senate career serving with her and it is hard to imagine a Senate of Virginia without Yvonne Miller," Norment said.
Yvonne Bond Miller was born in 1934 in Edenton, N.C., one of 13 siblings, Locke said. Miller earned her bachelor's degree in 1956 from the predecessor of Norfolk State University, where she would later become a member of the faculty. She earned graduate degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Her first teaching job in Norfolk city schools subjected her to the painful lessons of "Massive Resistance," the state's institutionalized defiance of the Supreme Court's order to desegregate the nation's public schools.
Into her final days in Virginia's Capitol, that bitter experience forged her outlook and imbued her floor speeches with an authentic anger that commanded the silent attention of her 39 fellow senators.
In February, Miller denounced a Republican-backed bill requiring voters to bring identification documents to polling places beginning this fall. Opponents of the bill, particularly Locke and Miller, likened the measure to Jim Crow voter suppression tactics just ahead of a presidential election in the swing state of Virginia.