Virginia Williams: She Was Our Mama in Washington, D.C.
It had been two month since Virginia Hayes Williams—Mama Williams to more than just her children, most notably to former two-term District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams—passed away in Los Angeles. For the many friends, however, who gathered to celebrate her life at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts March 22, she still seemed like a breath of needed fresh air.
For the eight years that Williams was mayor of this city, his mother acted like another first lady and a second mother to us all. If you met her, there was no such thing as just being a sometime acquaintance. This woman, a gifted and trained singer, and a political junkie and activist to her core, proved to be a force in the city. She was someone you’d never forget, and there were always welcome phone calls just in case you hadn’t talked to her in a while.
In her role as first mom, she gathered her forces together and made her presence known to people who needed her the most: the elderly, students, parents, the less and least fortunate, the homeless. At the same time, she always, always had a song to sing.
Although the words "politics" and "politicians" were mentioned, you could forgive yourself for thinking that maybe the city wasn’t in the middle of a strange, dramatic and compelling primary campaign. It is compelling for all the wrong reasons. Of course, Anthony Williams—“I wish he were running,” a woman whispered behind me”—was there to preside over the memories and stories which filled the air like hymns and talking blues. There were council members and the current Mayor Vincent Gray, leaving whatever clouds trailed behind him outside the door.
The people who came here—Williams and brother Lewis Williams and sisters Jessica and Alexandrea Williams, friends like the two Jans, Jan DuPlain and Jan Staihar, Judith Terra, Catfish Mayfield Hunter, Kenyon McDuffie, Dorothy and Bill McSweeny, Duke Elllington co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who brought the good news of the establishment of a $1 million Virginia E. Hayes Williams fund for students who excel in opera on behalf of the Eugene B. Casey Foundation—came to celebrate her life and spirit.
Blazingly bright-colored umbrellas dotted the building in memory of Mama Williams autobiographical book, “Living Under God’s Umbrella,” and stories were told and passed around later. Her life was worthy of at least a book. Hers was a journey from one place in Kentucky, to others, to tutelage by music teachers and being told that an African American woman could not (at that time) think of a career in opera, even though as many will recall, she had all the gifts and training for such a career. Instead, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met her husband Lewis Williams III, working at the post office. Together, they raised nine children, including Anthony, who was adopted, and whom she called “God’s child”.
She was passionately political. She ran for office in Los Angeles, unsuccessfully. She supported Tom Bradley, the city’s first African American mayor, and was a key member of Williams’s late-blooming candidacy. Later, she supported Linda Cropp in her bid against Adrian Fenty as well as Gray.
But the stories here weren’t really about politics. They were about song and music—and a big heart and voice which embraced everyone. “I am the mayor’s mother,” she would say, and more often than not start to sing. She believed that if you had something to give—including and especially love—why you must give it. She would sing arias, “Summertime," gospel songs and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.
Music sounded through the hallways. We heard the strains of “Amazing Grace” by violinist Nathaniel Heyder, the story of Mama Williams singing “Summertime,” her voice ringing out with each and every verse. We were told by Virginia’s friend Lee Brian Reba that Virginia Williams "loved each and every one of you."
I believe and know that. When my mother passed after 9/11, Mrs. Williams, whom I had met before, she said to me, "I’m gonna be your momma in Washington.” I believed that, too, and was glad for knowing that.
She was a person whose legacy was a spirit that lets the sun shine and fill the hole in your heart.