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Great Immigrants

Wilmot Collins
Mayor, Helena, Montana
Born in:
Liberia

As a refugee fleeing the First Liberian Civil War, Wilmot Collins experienced the pain of losing two brothers and endured extreme hunger along with a two-year separation from his wife and daughter, who preceded him in immigrating to the United States. In 1994 Collins arrived in Helena, the capital of Montana, reuniting with his family and getting what he called his “second chance.” Collins began his life in America working at a home for abused children and as a school janitor. In 2017, after spending two decades as a U.S. Navy reservist and working as a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Health, Collins was elected the first black mayor of any city in Montana since statehood, running on a progressive ticket in the city’s nonpartisan mayoral race. His platform included a commitment to increasing funding for firefighters, police officers, and other first responders and reducing teenage and veteran homelessness. With immigration at the forefront of the national debate, however, Collins’s victory became more than a local affair, with national and international media sharing the inspiring story of the country music–loving Liberian refugee who defeated a 16-year incumbent in a state where less than one percent of the population is black. As Collins told NPR, “When I was running, I was not running as a refugee, but with what’s been going on nationally with refugees I think it was good to know that all refugees are not what [critics] say they are. We’re not bloodsuckers. We are not just here to consume the resources. We provide for the economy.” In May 2019 Collins announced plans to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in the November 2020 election, becoming the first to take on the Republican incumbent.