CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Lorraine and Eugene Williams, the Charlottesville couple whose civil rights work helped desegregate city schools and whose business focused on fair and affordable housing, are the recipients of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 award for diversity.
The chamber’s John F. Bell Sr. Vanguard Award was created in 2015 to recognize those who actively promote diversity within the business community.
The award’s namesake was a respected business leader during the Jim Crow era when much of the South was legally segregated. Bell founded the J.F. Bell Funeral Home, which is still family-run.
The award was scheduled to be presented Sept. 19 at the Chamber Business Diversity Luncheon, hosted by the Chamber Business Diversity Council. The sold-out luncheon is being held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Michel Zajur, founder and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, will be the keynote speaker.
“We are very excited about the award. It’s a big deal to us,” Eugene Williams. “(Bell) was a mentor to me and I knew him from my years growing up until his death. He was a good businessman and good to the community and treated everyone with respect, regardless of color. The fact that this award honors him makes it even more special to us.”
Williams, who served for years as regional vice president of Universal Life Insurance Co. in Charlottesville, later founded Dogwood Housing, a limited partnership that bought and rehabilitated properties to provide low-cost, high-quality housing at affordable prices. The properties provided racially and economically mixed alternatives to public housing.
The Williamses’ efforts were honored in a 2015 commendation from the Virginia General Assembly sponsored by Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County.
“They’re very special and they’ve done a lot for the community and business community over the years,” said Timothy Hulbert, president of the chamber. “They deserve to be recognized.”
As a local NAACP official, Williams helped to force desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s by showing up in person to demand schools in the city, Albemarle County and the greater region enroll black students.
At a time when lunch counters, theaters, public bathrooms and drinking fountains were segregated, the family often protested segregation by going to restaurants where their orders were never taken.
But the Williamses, who are both approaching 90, are best known for the 1955 lawsuit they and other parents filed against Charlottesville schools. School officials refused to allow black students to attend white schools despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that separate education was unequal education.
They filed the suit despite Lorraine Williams working for the school district as a teacher.
They won in court but the school system shut itself down rather than allow black and white students to attend classes together. The schools were ordered reopened the next year and the system slowly integrated throughout the 1960s.
During Charlottesville’s urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, the Vinegar Hill area was razed and many homes and businesses owned by African-Americans were demolished. The Williamses and other family members created Dogwood Housing and redeveloped 62 housing units. They sold the business and retired in 2007.
“It’s very exciting to win an award (from the chamber) for both civil rights and business,” Eugene Williams said. “This means a lot to us.”