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Women of the Year: Wilhelmenia Williams a model of perseverance and strength for her children

Nov. 17, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 18, 2022 at 5:20 p.m.

Wilhelmenia Williams, mother of civil rights activist Sandy Williams, was chosen as one of The Spokesman-Review’s Women of the Year.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Wilhelmenia Williams, mother of civil rights activist Sandy Williams, was chosen as one of The Spokesman-Review’s Women of the Year. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Behind a strong woman, there’s usually another strong woman.

That certainly was the case for the late Sandy Williams, a civil rights activist in Spokane, publisher of the Black Lens newspaper and founder of the Carl Maxey Center.

At nearly every event, meeting, long editing session or stressful moment, Williams’ mother, Wilhelmenia Williams, was right there, quietly supporting her daughter as she changed Spokane. Williams was the guiding force for her daughter in the background, and as the community grieves the loss of Sandy Williams in a plane crash earlier this year, it’s important to recognize her mother too, said Lisa Gardner, who nominated Wilhelmenia Williams for Women of the Year.

“We see that you were there every step of the way with Sandy,” Gardner said.

While Williams, now 88, may have played a supportive role in recent years, she is no stranger to overcoming obstacles of her own and choosing to build community out of adversity.

She grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, with her nine brothers and sisters.

Her father, John Henry Smith worked at the railroad station and her mother, Jessie Smith, was a housekeeper.

Early on, Williams knew she wanted to pursue a career.

“I was out in the cotton field and the sun was really hot and I said, ‘I know there’s an inside job somewhere, I’m going to find me one,’ ” Smith-Williams said.

In those days there were really only three options for a Black woman: teacher, housekeeper, or nurse, Williams said.

Having five younger brothers, she thought, “I’m not teaching anymore.”

She didn’t want to be a housekeeper, “so nursing was it.”

Williams traveled the 70-some miles to Columbia, South Carolina, to attend a “very segregated” nursing school there.

The only problem was the school sent her a brochure that only detailed the program for white students.

When she signed up, she realized the program for Black students took longer to complete, and white students were given preferential treatment. That forced a delay in her being able to earn her psychiatric certification.

She graduated in 1956 and promptly married her husband, Thomas E. Williams, the next year.

Then she went back to get that certification at a local hospital, while her husband was away in the military.

The hospital conducted electroshock therapy. White patients were monitored afterward while Black patients were sent back to their rooms alone, Williams recalled.

“I would tell my mom, I said, ‘Mom I can’t do this. I can’t deal with what they’re doing,’ ” Williams said, still emotional decades later.

“She said, ‘Child, don’t you know if I could have gotten an education,’ which they couldn’t at the at time, ‘I would have walked through hell to get it,’ ” Williams said.

“And I said, ‘But mom, I’m walking through hell every day.’ ”

“She said, ‘Walk a little lighter. They got what you want, go back and get what they got.’ ”

Williams stuck it out, passing the class, retaking her board certification and moving with her husband.

That dose of practical advice, subtle support and push to achieve more than those before her is at the core of what Smith-Williams taught her own children.

The Williams family moved to Spokane in the late 1970s after years of bouncing from one college campus to the next as her husband taught ROTC.

“It was quite different,” Williams said of her first impression of Spokane. “The Black people were few and far in between and Gonzaga was even worse.”

Somehow the family, who by now included junior high children Rick and Sandy Williams, adapted.

“You do what you have to do,” Williams said. “Go where you have to go and you adapt or not.”

She worked as a nurse at Fairchild Air Force Base until she had a stroke in the 1980s. Since then she has been retired supporting her family behind the scenes.

Her daughter, Sandy Williams, grew into a civil rights legend in Spokane, publishing the Black Lens newspaper and founding the Carl Maxey Center. Sandy Williams died, along with her partner, Patricia Hicks, in a plane crash in the Puget Sound on Sept. 4.

Williams’ son, Rick Williams, became chief operating officer at a number of philanthropic foundations giving millions of dollars to community organizations.

“They were supposed to go farther,” Wilhemenia Williams said. “Each one that makes a step up has to bring someone along with them – so they were doing just what they were taught to do, bring somebody along with them.”

Rick Williams remembers his mother always being “present” with her family during his childhood. She was the more practical parent, explaining how to do things, while their father dolled out advice, Rick Williams said.

“My memories of her were about grounding me in how to get from A to B to C to get things done,” Rick Williams said.

Their lifestyle of moving every three years also made the family resilient.

“We were anchored in overcoming whatever challenges were there, you know, being one of the few Black families in all of these white communities,” Rick Williams said. “You do that by building relationships.”

As the kids grew into successful adults, eventually starting families of their own, Williams became the family anchor, a behind-the-scenes force grounding her successful children.

Then she became “Grandma Willie” to Rick Williams’ two children and Sandy’s daughter, Renika Williams.

Renika Williams’ childhood memories of Grandma Willie are that of a tough lady who just got things done.

Now that image has softened as Renika Williams, 34, has gone through hardships of her own.

“She has taught me a lot about just walking in grace,” Renika Williams said.

In those moments of crisis and struggle, Williams gives a subtle strength to her loved ones and reminds them of the bigger picture.

“She comes with so much history of achieving and walking through fire,” Renika Williams said. “And she’s able to do that without preaching at you. She’s able to just be there with you and help guide you through that.”

In the Spokane community, Sandy Williams was known for getting stuff done.

She didn’t see Black stories being told from a Black perspective, so she founded a newspaper.

There wasn’t a community center for Black residents to easily access resources, so she founded one. Instead of complaining, commiserating or expecting others to step in and fix the problems, Sandy Williams just got to work, friends and community leaders said at her memorial.

That attitude is one she learned from her mother.

“Grandma doesn’t really talk too much about what she’s doing or how she’s doing it,” Renika Williams said. “She just lives it.”

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