Virginia native Jennifer McClellan remembers her parents’ recounting life as Black Southerners enduring segregation and the trauma and triumph of the civil rights movement.

It showed her that government can be “a powerful force for improving people’s lives” but also one “that oppresses some, ignores others.”

A generation later, despite her interest in public office, there was no obvious pathway for someone like her.

“There weren’t a lot of role models … examples of Black women” in power, said Ms. McClellan in an interview. Now, she’s a state senator running for governor herself: “We’re in a very different Virginia.”