Willa Mae Williams will not have her name engraved anywhere in the National Museum of Black History and Culture. There will be no statue of her. In fact, she will receive no individual recognition for her grand achievements over the ninety-six years she was here in this world. But for me, she is the real heroine as was her husband, Bill Williams who passed in 1996, twenty years before she left on September 28, 2016.
You see, Willa Mae sought no glory in this world. She led no causes, didn’t march in any of the civil rights protests in the 1960’s. Instead, Willa Mae dedicated her life to raising her children, being a great mother and a dedicated wife. Despite her absence from the marches and the fact that there will be no monuments built in commemoration of her life, she was the foundation of the Black culture in the roles she so magnificently fulfilled. But she was no different than millions of other Black women, who quietly went about living their lives, raising their families and trying to make this a better place to live, despite the myriad of obstacles they confronted in some of the most turbulent years following the eradication of slavery.
As a young girl of thirteen, she participated in what has come to be known as the great migration of Blacks out of the South and up North. Evidently around 1933 while still living in Harrell, Arkansas, some European American woman saw my mother and told her grandmother, “Oh that is such a cute little n****r, I think I want to own her.” Sound rather incredible. But you can rest assured those kinds of things happened in a back country village like Harrell, a place that no longer exists. That’s all her grandmother had to hear, because within weeks they were out of Arkansas and arrived in Saginaw, Michigan, a small General Motors town, one hundred miles north of Detroit. It is there in 1936, she met a young, handsome man, Bill Williams, who was born and raised in Saginaw. He asked Willa Mae’s mother if he could take her to the movies on one bright Sunday afternoon and she told him yes. The next year, he asked her mother if he could take Willa Mae’s hand in marriage. The answer again was yes and on June 6, 1937, they were united as husband and wife and the rest is history.
They remained married for 59 years, raised four children, two boys and two girls. In the true meaning of the word, they became one in love. It was because of Willa Mae’s commitment to her children that we all went on to make her proud of our accomplishments. I completed all the work for a Doctorate Degree from Indiana University, worked as a Legislative Aide to Senator Birch Bayh and Congressman Parren Mitchell, helped establish the African American Studies Minor at University of Texas at San Antonio, and have written four novels, ghost written four autobiographies and edited two anthologies. My sibling’s accomplishments are similar in achievement to mine. And we owe this success to a young girl who only finished the eighth grade in formal education.
There is something very special about the Black mother in America. She has carried such a burden but has handled it with grace, love and dignity. Many of the mothers in Willa Mae’s generation didn’t have college degrees and often not high school diplomas. But they had a special sense of knowledge and understanding about the trials and tribulations of this life, and desperately tried to pass those qualities onto their children. Over the centuries, from the slave mother giving birth to a child knowing the misery they would confront, to the contemporary mother trapped in a web of poverty also knowing the struggles their child will confront, these matriarchs of the race have never failed to provide us with an everlasting love. And that is exactly what Willa Mae provided to me, my brother and two sisters. And for that love I will always appreciate, respect and love her.
My mother, Willa Mae Williams has gone on to be with her husband, but not for another 59 years like they spent together here on earth but instead for eternity.