REFUGIO, Texas — Even with no interest in politics, Wanda Dukes eventually found herself at the mayor’s desk in 2016. It was a first for the town.
“I guess there’s like two strikes against me, being female — being black,” Dukes said. “But, obviously, I guess that didn’t matter, because here I am. As mayor. I think that speaks volumes for this town.”
Her interest in public service wasn’t without the help of another mayor decades ago when she was working within a health department across the street from Refugio’s City Hall.
“The current mayor at the time came over, across the street, because he had a position open — someone had resigned,” Dukes said. “(The mayor told me) that a lot of people had told him that I would be good for that position.”
After some time and prayer, Dukes was chosen out of several who were pushing for that job.
“There were about 15 people that wanted that position, but the council chose me,” she said. “I figured, if they had enough confidence in me to choose me, that I was going to do my best and, so that’s what I’ve been doing — all these years.”
With the exception of 2012, Dukes had previously been with the town’s city council since 1990 before becoming mayor.
Although she had her critics, Dukes said she gradually began to win over more and more people.
“They didn’t think that I could do the job,” Dukes said. “But when the hurricane came, and they saw what I had done, that changed some of their minds."
Dukes recalled moments where one of her constituents would spot her during the Harvey cleanup, actively removing trash.
“(That woman told me), ‘Well she must really care about her town.’ And I do — I care about the town.”
Dukes, who described herself as someone who had been employed at an early age, attributes her work ethics to the women in her family.
“They were examples for me,” she said. “And they were always encouraging to me.”
Before she was mayor, Dukes also encountered instances of racism.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, Refugio is not like that.’ But then when I think back about it — we had movie movie theater here. I couldn’t go sit down in the main section of the theater — we had to go upstairs in the balcony to sit.”
Dukes took us to one moment where she was at the cinema’s ticket counter.
“The lady told the other kids, y’all can come in, but she can’t. And I said, ‘Why?’
‘You know what you did.’ So, I didn’t know.”
Dukes eventually learned that she had been mistaken for her cousin who looks similar to her. Dukes asked her cousin.
“She tried to go and sit down in there,” Dukes explained. “I always wished that that had been me. I didn’t get to go to the movies anymore. But it was fine.”
More recently, Dukes said that Refugio ISD’s decision in January 2020 to vote down their high school’s fight song “Dixie,” which is often tied to the Confederacy, was a step in the right direction for her town.
“I had grandsons playing football, and when they run out on the field, they play Dixie. And I didn’t stand up,” she said. “There were people saying, ‘Stand up, stand up.’ They were even some black people.
“I said, ‘I can’t stand up. Because of that song.’ But my grandsons know why I’m not standing. Because I’m just not going to show any kind of support for it and I felt if I stood up — I would be doing that.”
Dukes joined several member of the community who spoke out against the continued use of the song.
“It’s just hard to stop tradition. But, everything that tradition is not always right,” she said. “I think the school board, they were brave in doing the right thing finally. And all of the people that went and spoke against the song, you know — I commend them all.”
Although she doesn’t have much in-person interaction due to the pandemic, she’s glad to know that she acts as an inspiration to her family, and young black girls throughout her community.
“They (would) always give me a hug,” she said, recounting times when some would realize that she was actually the mayor. “That makes me feel so good.”