- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

The District marked its own loss in the epoch of civil rights when hundreds came to Howard University yesterday to say farewell to Wilhelmina Jackson Rolark.

“In the last several months, we lost two icons in Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King,” said Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “We’ve lost an icon of our own now in D.C. … Wilhelmina was a lady of grace, great character, determination and purpose.”

Mrs. Rolark, a stalwart of the D.C. Council from 1977 to 1992, died Tuesday at the Greater Southeast Community Hospital after battling colon cancer. She was 89.

Mr. Williams, a Democrat, joined other city leaders, family and friends for the funeral at Howard Law School’s Dumbarton Chapel, where Mrs. Rolark was also remembered as an accomplished lawyer, publisher, champion for Ward 8 residents and philanthropist.

She and her now-deceased husband, Calvin W. Rolark, in 1969 helped start the United Black Fund, a nonprofit organization that provided money to community-based organizations.

Marion S. Barry, former D.C. mayor and current Ward 8 council member, said he and Mrs. Rolark had their political disagreements, but they never hurt their friendship nor dimmed his admiration for her.

“She is as big in death as she was in life,” said Mr. Barry, a Democrat. “She fought the good fight, for justice, equality, for the downtrodden.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered the eulogy for Mrs. Rolark, who also served on the national board of the SCLC.

“We have to take up the mantle and carry on the work,” he said. “The heavens and earth cry out for a new generation of Wilhelmina Jackson Rolarks. … We must now move from ceremony to sacrament.”

Mrs. Rolark was born 1916 in Portsmouth, Va., and graduated from I.C. Norcum High School in 1933. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Howard University, she began working at the Treasury Department. Mrs. Rolark earned her law degree in 1944 by taking night classes at the Robert H. Terrell Law School.

She specialized in civil rights cases and founded the National Association of Black Women Attorneys in 1970.

Mrs. Rolark and her husband also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and the following year co-founded the Washington Informer, a black community newspaper.

She worked as the United Black Fund’s general counsel — winning major legal battles against United Givers Fund and the Civil Service Commission for discrimination.

Upon Mr. Rolark’s death in 1994, the organization’s board of directors unanimously elected her as president and chief executive officer.

“The United Black Fund has been in business for 36 years, and has been successful for 36 years” said Samuel Cornelius, the organization’s chairman, who worked alongside Mrs. Rolark. “That’s because she’s been involved in [making] every important decision.”

Mrs. Rolark led several D.C. Council panels, including the Judiciary Committee, of which she was chairman for 10 years. The committee set the budgets for 22 city agencies, including the police and fire departments.

She also spearheaded numerous legislative initiatives, including one that created the D.C. Energy Office, the Bank Depository Act and the law that triples penalties for PCP distribution.

She also is credited with bringing cable television to the District, making sure that it was available first in Ward 8.

“Wilhelmina was there on the front lines,” said Rufus G. King III, the chief judge for D.C. Superior Court. “Her North Star was what was best for the [people] of D.C.”

She helped found the annual Martin Luther King Day parade in Southeast and was integral in naming two main intersecting roads in Southeast after Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, worked with the Rolarks on civil rights issues, including making King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Politicians are often like smoke,” Mrs. Norton said. “They serve, then disappear into thin air. But her signature is written in indelible ink across this town. She was an institution in this city all by herself.”

Up until her death, Mrs. Rolark continued to serve as president and CEO of the United Black Fund and worked as a practicing lawyer, specializing in probate issues.

Former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and many former and current council members also attended the service.

“She fought for those who could not fight for themselves,” said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat. “Because of her, our government — in fact, our entire city — is a much better place to work and live.”

Kia Cooper, who lived near Mrs. Rolark at Foxhall Place in Southeast, remembered her as a kind, friendly neighbor who was enamored with Miss Cooper’s dog, Butch.

“She made it feel like we live in the best neighborhood in Southeast,” Miss Cooper said. “Foxhall will not be the same without Mrs. Rolark.”


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