David Dinkins Biography

Professor, Mayor (1927–)
David Dinkins became the first African American to serve as mayor of New York City following his election victory in 1989.


Born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1927, David Dinkins attended Howard University and Brooklyn Law School. He began his career in New York City politics in the 1960s, ascending to city clerk and Manhattan borough president, before becoming the Big Apple's first African-American mayor in 1989. His accomplishments offset by the city's economic and racial issues, Dinkins lost his bid for reelection in 1993, and he later became a professor at Columbia University.

Early Years

David Norman Dinkins was born on July 10, 1927, in Trenton, New Jersey, to Sally and William Dinkins. His parents separated when he was 6 years old, and Dinkins briefly lived with his mother in the Harlem section of New York City before returning to New Jersey with his dad and stepmother, Lottie. 

After graduating from Trenton Central High School, Dinkins attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps but was rebuffed due to his race. He was finally admitted in the summer of 1945, as one of the groundbreaking African-American Montford Point Marines. Although the war ended while he was still in boot camp, he was able to use his service time to attend Howard University on the G.I. Bill. 

Dinkins studied mathematics at Howard, where he met his future wife, Joyce Burrows, before graduating cum laude in 1950. 

Political Rise 

David Dinkins returned to New York to attend Brooklyn Law School in 1953. After graduating in 1956, he teamed with Thomas Benjamin Dyett and Fritz Alexander to form the law firm of Dyett, Alexander & Dinkins. 

Additionally, with help from his father-in-law, New York State Assemblyman Daniel L. Burrows, Dinkins became involved in the George Washington Carver Democratic Club of Harlem. He subsequently was elected to the state assembly in 1965, although he served only one term before his district was reapportioned. 

In 1972, Dinkins was appointed to the New York Board of Elections, and he became the first African American to serve as its president. His political rise was seemingly halted by his failure to pay taxes for three years, resulting in the withdrawal of an offer to become deputy mayor in 1973. However, he was elected city clerk in 1974 and served in the role for 10 years, until taking over as Manhattan borough president in 1985. 

NYC Mayor 

In 1989, David Dinkins ended New York City Mayor Edward Koch's bid for a fourth term with a win in the Democratic primary. He then narrowly defeated former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani to become the first African-American mayor of the city. 

Dinkins struggled to implement many of his plans due to a recession. He did manage to launch the New York City Safe Streets, Safe City Program to place more police officers on the streets, and sought to foster community involvement through the Beacon Initiative. Additionally, he signed deals with Disney, which led to a renovation of seedy Times Square, and with the United States Tennis Association (USTA), to keep the lucrative U.S. Open tournament in Queens. 

However, Dinkins was also damaged by rising homicide rates and the flaring of racial tensions, which culminated in the deadly Crown Heights riots in 1991. Although many of his programs ultimately helped to reduce crime, the perception of his shortcomings as a leader lingered, and he was edged by Giuliani in his bid for reelection in 1993.

Later Career

After leaving City Hall, the ex-mayor began hosting a radio program called "Dialogue with Dinkins." He also joined the faculty of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), through which he began hosting the annual David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum. 

Dinkins has served as a board member of numerous organizations, including New York City Global Partners, the Children’s Health Fund and the USTA. In 2012, he received a Congressional Gold Medal for his service with the Montford Point Marines, and the following year he published a memoir, A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic

In 2015, Dinkins was honored for his decades of public service when one of lower Manhattan’s architectural landmarks was renamed the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building.


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