The Amazing Grace of Virginia Williams
We lost an original this past week. Virginia Williams, the mother of former Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams passed away in California after a brief illness. She was 87.
We recall going to many a function in the city, a charity event or electoral fund raiser or something involving children or seniors, and there she’d be, up on the podium, singing a gospel hymn, raising up every voice in song.
It was always hard to be objective around Virginia Williams. She was an embracer, a handshaker, a look-you-in-the-eye and measuring-you kind of person, as vivid as the right note in “Amazing Grace.” She insisted on getting to know you, enough so that if she had an opinion about something, she’d call you up and share it.
When Anthony Williams was comtemplating running for mayor, he called his mother for help. According to comments and stories from the former mayor, he said that that she was the only one who knew anything about politics in his family. So, Virginia Williams, who had just lost her husband, came here and helped her son. She was coming from a place where she raised nine children, six of her own, and three adopted, including Anthony.
Williams, the Chief Financial Officer of the District of Columbia at the time, was a political novice, and often seemed to remain in that state, which was refreshing. He lacked the kind of charisma that came easily to the Marion Barrys and Bill Clintons of the world. But he had an ace up his sleeve — his mom.
In her life, Virginia Williams worked at the post office in Los Angeles, trained to be an opera singer, ran for office and campaigned for Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles. She knew a thing or two about life experiences, some of them painful. She was a woman of faith and shared that gladly, but without pressure. She embraced life, every bit of it, and responded to its grace, its gifts as well as it sorrows. Mayor Williams is said to have once quipped that some people had trouble figuring out if he had a soul or not, and that his mother settled the matter simply by her presence.
She was called “Nana” by her large extended family, which grew a lot larger when she came to Washington. She and her husband, the late Lewis Williams III, adopted the then three-year-old Anthony Eggleton, who had been raised in foster care and did not speak. Obviously, under the care of the Williams family, he learned to speak and a lot of other things.
When she campaigned for her son, people got to hear not only the urgings of a mother but the voice of a real singer. She sang uplifting songs at every occasion. She said once, “My son says I saved his life. I credit him with saving mine by giving me an opportunity to help in reaching people with his programs.”
She was never, from our experience of her, an old lady. A lady, surely. But old? Never. She said she believed what a writer had written: “Old age should be saturated with dreams.” Her life was a rich one—it went through Peducah, Kentucky, to Mississippi, to Washington, D.C., to New Jersey, to Chicago, to California and back to D.C.
Her first appearance was at an Anthony Williams campaign kickoff in 1998, where she sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” That song ran through all the days of her life.