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Charlottesville civil rights pioneers Lorraine and Eugene Williams 'actually walked the talk'

Nearly 70 years ago, when it appeared their daughters would be shut out of an elementary school on account of their race, Lorraine and Eugene Williams sued the Charlottesville school system. And back when slum clearance and public housing were widely viewed as waves of the future, Eugene Williams not only warned the city of impending ghettoization, but the couple pooled their resources with relatives to buy and renovate dozens of dilapidated apartments scattered across downtown.

“They actually walked the talk,” former city councilor Dede Smith told The Daily Progress. “They not only were vocal about the issues, but they took action.”

Those actions are still playing out today. In March, the rental properties they assembled with Eugene Williams’ brother and sister-in-law into a company called Dogwood Housing Limited Partnership were sold by their subsequent owner, Keith Woodard, to the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. That meant maintaining housing affordability for 171 people in 74 units at 25 sites.

“The CRHA looks to continue the work of the legendary civil rights leader Eugene Williams who founded Dogwood Properties,” authority Executive Director John Sales said in a statement.

So a body once known for wielding federally funded bulldozers, including the notorious 1960s razing of Charlottesville’s historically Black Vinegar Hill neighborhood, was now buying, literally, into a Williams family vision. It’s a vision of uplift.

“At that time at lot of affordable housing was in very poor condition and operated by slumlords who wouldn’t take care of the property,” city councilor Michael Payne told The Daily Progress. “Eugene’s vision was to provide high-quality affordable housing and give people a sense of ownership and pride.”

So eager for uplift, Eugene Williams would personally compile a monthly newsletter for Dogwood tenants. Each issue of “Informed People are Better People” might contain news clippings, inspirational quotations and writings by the residents themselves. Fundamentally, the vision meant welcoming renters from varying income levels, including those bearing Section 8 vouchers, into residences that appear no different from those around them.

“Out of decent housing, in most instances, come very decent people, and that’s what makes the community a better community,” Eugene Williams told The Daily Progress while renovating the structures in 1981.

The concept of decentralizing affordable housing ran counter to that era’s conventional wisdom, when the federal government was urging local authorities to condemn huge swaths of American cities in a process called “urban renewal” but which entailed demolishing a community and replacing it with a public housing complex.

“Clustered public housing serves no one well,” Eugene Williams told The Daily Progress when selling Dogwood Properties in 2007. “It destroys the ambition of human beings.”

If the Williams family enterprise heading into the 21st century was entrepreneurial, in the prior century it was activist. In 1955, the Williams were among those who sued the board of the Charlottesville public schools to uphold not just the letter but also the spirit of the Supreme Court’s year-earlier decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Eugene Williams was then the head of the local NAACP and said that his job was safe as he was employed by a Black-owned life insurance firm. But the suit could have put his wife at risk.

“She was a public school teacher,” Eugene Williams told The Daily Progress. “She never said, ‘I don’t want to be a part because I might lose my job.’”

Their effort culminated in 1960 when the first of their two daughters was escorted by police into Johnson Elementary School.

“My kids went to Johnson and wouldn’t have been able to if they hadn’t made that intervention,” University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt told The Daily Progress. “It’s hard to think of anyone else who had such an impact.”

That impact didn’t stop with integrating schools or creating affordable housing. In the past decade, Eugene Williams has been a persistent force in pressing for a marker to denote the century of human trafficking that was the Charlottesville slave trade. The city saw an unusual moment of civil disobedience in 2020 when a local activist, Richard “Freeman” Allan, stole a small marker that makes a brief mention that “on this site slaves were bought and sold” near Court Square in hopes of getting a bigger and more detailed marker installed.

“Eugene Williams raised the issue,” Allan told the Daily Progress.

In his recent book, “A History of Racism in Charlottesville,” Allan notes that Eugene Williams pressed not only for recognition of the centrality of the slave trade to the early Charlottesville economy but for some accounting of the lingering damage. Because a state board voted its approval in mid-December, a marker now appears close to reality.

But for the man who pressed the issue, Eugene Williams contends that a marker isn’t enough, that reparations are owed to those robbed of their freedom and ability to build wealth, something he said he’d like to see noted on a marker.

“There should be another paragraph,” said Eugene Williams. “I think the time has really come.”

Eugene Williams said that he realized early in life that Black people were not getting fair treatment. When he was 10, his father was struck and killed by a car driven by a UVa student who went unpunished by the local courts. Later, while stationed at Fort Eustis prior to the integration of the armed forces, he recalled bristling at the fact that even while serving his nation in uniform he was sent to the back of a bus.

“It was hard to accept,” he said. “And I did not accept it.”

Today, he’s 96 and his wife is 98, and they have been celebrated by the Charlottesville City Council, applauded by the General Assembly and have drawn appreciative waves and nods for decades. And yet Eugene Williams expressed gratitude for being named to the Distinguished Dozen.

“I’m really speechless,” he exclaimed to The Daily Progress when so informed. “We really appreciate it.”

In his crisp Kennedy-era business suits and bowties, Eugene Williams may have been the person the public most closely associated with the civil rights won in Charlottesville, but Lorraine Williams remains a key part of the story, said daughter Sheryl Williams Glanton.

“They really both were part of that journey in a very serious way,” Glanton told The Daily Progress.

She recalled accompanying her father to the Charlottesville Woolworth’s when she was a little girl. At the site of what’s now the Terraces complex on the Downtown Mall, the two would conduct a quiet protest of the segregated lunch counter.

“Mom dressed me all up with pigtails and bows, and Dad explained that I would not get the ice cream soda I wanted,” recounted Glanton. “And we did not get served.”

Glanton was also one of the two sisters whose enrollment in Johnson Elementary included a canine-assisted police escort. “My sister remembers the dogs,” she said. “I just remember the policemen.”

Today, the court battles over integration are over, and Glanton’s father now favors an open-collared look. The couple are still together in the spacious Ridge Street house in which they have have dwelled since 1957, and Glanton said she has always felt strong support from the community.

“We thought we were doing something very important, and that’s what kept us moving,” said Glanton. “It was a big deal then, and in reflection, even a bigger deal today.”


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