Charlottesville’s legendary civil rights leader turned 90 November 6, and Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy presented him with a proclamation declaring the day Eugene Williams Day at a birthday celebration November 4 at Boar’s Head Inn.
Williams grew up on Dice Street in a house with no plumbing, unlike the white-owned abodes on nearby Ridge Street. He went to college, served in the military and came back to Charlottesville as a sales exec for a black-owned insurance company, which gave him the freedom to question the segregation of the 1950s.
As president of the local NAACP chapter, its membership was at a peak, Bellamy says Williams reminds him. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal schools didn’t cut it in Brown v. Board of Education, Williams recruited plaintiffs to sue the Charlottesville School Board. And when they prevailed in court, Governor Lindsay Almond ordered Venable Elementary and Lane High schools closed rather than admit black children in 1958’s notorious massive resistance.
In 1980, Williams convinced his wife, Lorraine, brother Albert and sister-in-law Emma to sink their life savings into Dogwood Housing to provide affordable housing to families throughout the city, bucking the trend of housing the poor in projects.
Bellamy says Williams “always tells me to push to do more” and advised him that nothing gets done without being a troublemaker, which Williams denies, but says, “I had to be a troublemaker.”
And the proclamation declares, “Eugene Williams has served as a symbolic conscience of Charlottesville for what is right and fair for all people and for bridging the diverse parts of the Charlottesville community.”