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Lorraine Williams, half of Charlottesville civil rights power couple, dies

Retired Charlottesville teacher and civil rights pioneer Lorraine Williams, who helped desegregate the city’s schools with her children and husband Eugene, died Tuesday at the age of 98.

"May we never forget Lorraine’s remarkable courage and dedication as a civil rights advocate who has reshaped Charlottesville for the better," former city councilor Dede Smith told The Daily Progress.

In 1955, while she was teaching business education at the then-all-Black Jackson P. Burley High School, she and her husband were among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Charlottesville School Board, which was engaged in the so-called Massive Resistance campaign in Virginia to prevent the desegregation of public schools. The couple demanded the school board adhere the Supreme Court’s year-earlier decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Their daughters were among the first to enter formerly all-White schools.

Their leadership in that fight and in their family’s subsequent investment in providing affordable housing earned Lorraine and Eugene Williams a place in The Daily Progress’ Distinguished Dozen for 2023. But that has not been her only accolade.

According to her obituary, Lorraine Williams was designated an outstanding teacher at Lane High School, where she reportedly endured having a closet as an office. Additionally, she and her husband won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2023 and she was cited “Service Above Self” by Rotary International in 2015.

According to daughter, Scheryl Williams Glanton, Lorraine Williams managed to maintain a joyful outlook on life despite the obstacles she faced earlier in life and the poor health she faced later in life.

"I have a picture of her at Christmas where she was dancing," Glanton told The Daily Progress.

But in early March her father urgently contacted her and her sister, Karol Williams Biglow.

"I jumped on a train and came down," said Glanton, who lives in Philadelphia. "And as soon as I got here, I knew there was trouble."

Her mother received five days of hospice care, Glanton said, and the whole family was present for her death in the Ridge Street house where the Williams have lived for decades.

"She was only in hospice care five days, and we loved her those five days," said Glanton. "It was peaceful."

Born Doris Lorraine Payne in 1925, she spent her early years with six siblings in the Ivy-area community of Broad Axe near the Mechums River.

"Lorraine and her six siblings undertook a daily journey of resilience, walking approximately three miles to attend the two-room segregated Terry School in Little Ivy," according to her obituary.

Educated at the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, Williams went on to earn a master’s degree at what’s now called the University of Virginia School of Education.

"If she would see her former students on the Mall or at a public gathering," her widower told The Daily Progress, "they would walk up and put their arms around her and say things like, ‘Mrs. Williams, we’re so glad to see you.’"

Eugene Williams said that in her retirement, his wife took joy in her sorority and in visits with friends and family.

"We had such a close connection," said Williams, "and enjoyed each other for 75 years of marriage."


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