The first time I met my eighty-one year old neighbor, Eugene Williams, he said, “You know, you and me – we’re making history.” I was hooked. A few days later, I was back on his front porch, sharing pizza and Orange Crush with him and his wife Lorraine. Eugene shared tales of segregation and injustice, stories of my neighborhood. He told me how he was the third black to move on that end of the street – and how most of the whites quickly evacuated. He shared how he refused to use the cup labeled for “colored people” that hung above the water fountain at the old silk mill.
I walked into a world I never knew. I heard stories of my town and the way things once were. But more than anything else, I made two new friends.
Mr. Williams, a Charlottesville native, was born on Dice Street in 1928. Eugene has lived through much: a country clawing its way out of the Depression, WWII, segregation, the monumental Brown vs. Board of Education decision. He has seen many cycles of Spring and Fall in our city, many versions of city government, many people moving in and out of his town. As I’ve discovered, Mr. Williams has made many, many friends – he is beloved by many people from many walks of life.
And Eugene Williams should be much loved here – he has helped to make Charlottesville a better, more just place to live. When Charlottesville schools refused to desegregate (as did many Virginia public schools), Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ third-grade daughter, Scheryl, was bussed to one elementary while their white neighbor girl attended another. Eugene would have none of it – and he and his wife, along with a few other families, brought suit. Eventually, Scheryl arrived at Johnson Elementary, although unfortunately with a police escort. And again, when his fellow citizens needed an affordable place to live, Eugene risked most of his (and his wife’s and brother’s and sister-in-law’s) savings to purchase and renovate 21 properties that provided 62 affordable housing units for those needing a place with dignity to call home.
Mr. Williams would be the first to tell you there is more to be done. However, because Eugene Williams put his shoulder to the work of forcing Charlottesville schools to desegregate and because he put his money and reputation on the line to address the need for affordable housing in Charlottesville, all of us who live here receive the benefit. We owe Eugene Williams our thanks. Thank you, Mr. Williams. Thank you, neighbor.