- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2014


She was a wife, mother of eight, grandmother and great-grandmother.

She was a civic and political activist, one of those giver-backers of America’s “Greatest Generation.”

She trusted and exercised her faith, and used her do-the-right-thing and can-do attitudes to bridge generational and racial divides.

And, as a songbird, she lent her classical voice to the film soundtracks of “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess.”

Who was she?

She was Virginia Elizabeth Hayes Williams, and she died Thursday at age 87 back in Los Angeles following a brief illness.

Born in Kentucky, Virginia herself was adopted as a ‘tween and was reared in New Jersey. She studied music here in segregated Washington, where she sang for then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

No fool, Virginia realized her voice had a future, and she moved to Los Angeles, allowing her to record with Ray Charles and make off-camera appearances in such films as “Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones.”

Her practical side kicked in, too: With “no place for black women in opera,” as she once put it, Virginia got a job at the postal service, married and began raising a family.

She still used her voice in many a venue, including singing while working as a postal clerk and campaigning for Tom Bradley when he ran for L.A. mayor.

Indeed, by the time adopted son Anthony “Tony” Williams had decided to make a run for D.C. mayor, his mother was right at his side.

She easily and quickly donned the endearing title “First Mother,” and, as she had done in L.A., advocated school reform and better parks and recreation programs for every generation who utilized them.

She also began bridging another gap — the literacy gap — encouraging parents, and the business and nonprofit sectors to stomp out illiteracy.

It was on that bridge, in elementary schools and other forums across the city, where “First Mother” Virginia — “Other-Mother Virginia,” as I called her — and I leaned on each other and others.

We tutored the youngsters, we read to them and we were read to by the kids, and we were encouraged by parents and civic leaders.

“Children don’t come with textbooks,” she said to me early on, and I recalled and repeated that phrase often.

Other than wearing a blue Democratic cloak, the District and the City of Angels didn’t have a lot in common in the mid-1990s, when then-Mayor Marion Barry named Tony Williams as the city’s first wholly independent chief financial officer. An unknown entity in a city where black pride was a way of life, Mr. Williams helped to erase much of the District’s red ink before announcing his mayoral run in 1998.

“First Mother” was in election mode, too — making campaign appearances, establishing her own comfort zone and becoming a darling in a city that couldn’t quite make up its mind whether to hate or love her son and his bow ties.

Mrs. Williams‘ sincerity and charm helped win over the doubters — twice.

And that songbird voice — you never knew when or where she and it would show up.

It could be at a religious event. It could be at a mayoral event or other official D.C. affair.

It could be just because the spirit moved her.

It’s just that when both showed up, she was a double delight.

Having not seen her in a few years, I thought about her more than she knew.

She, like my mother, makes you feel really small when you foul up and pumps up your ego when you do the right thing.

It’s a generation’s spirit that can’t be undone. And that voice, well, it’s truly angelic now.

Thank you Virginia Elizabeth Hayes Williams for sharing.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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