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Family, Friends Celebrate D.C.'s First Mother

Sam P.K. Collins | 3/26/2014, 3 p.m.
Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams receives a book of memories about his mother Virginia E. Hayes Williams from civil rights pioneer Rufus "Catfish" Mayfield during a celebration of her life at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest on Saturday, March 22. Nancy Shia

Friends, family, colleagues and community members honored the life and legacy of Virginia E. Hayes Williams, known as D.C.’s First Mother, during a celebration of her life at a local high school.

Virginia Williams, singer and mother of former D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, died in Los Angeles in January after a brief illness. She was 87.

“She was a great performer in every sense of the word,” said Anthony Williams, 62. “When she was not on the platform or in front of an audience, she was in the home raising children or in the community doing work. That’s why we had to have this tribute to her.”

More than 100 people attended the Saturday, March 22 Celebration of Life program at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest which included performances by the Washington Performing Arts Society Children of the Gospel Choir and Christian Pickett and Erika Williams, granddaughters of the late matriarch. Andrea Roane of WUSA9 served as mistress of ceremonies for the two-hour program.

After opening remarks from Roane and Ellington Head of School Rory Pullens, the Rev. Lewis M. Anthony of Metropolitan Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church in Northwest led the audience in a prayer and talked briefly about Virginia Williams' legacy as an advocate for the elderly and children.  

“I celebrate her because she had an artist's eye and a prophet’s tongue,” said Anthony. “She spoke for those who did not have a spokesperson. We celebrate her today because she was a shepherd with a flock of elderly people, children, and whoever needed a hug. She reminded us that like Marian Anderson, you shouldn’t let anyone stop you from singing your song.”  

Virginia Williams, a former postal worker and one-time candidate for a city council seat in Los Angeles, moved to the District in 1998 when her son entered the D.C. mayoral race. The move to the District proved to be a homecoming of sorts for her. She studied music at the Washington Union Academy, now the Dupont Park Adventist School in Southeast, and performed before first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the years her son served as mayor, Virginia Williams often serenaded audiences at children’s programs and city-sponsored parties for centenarians. She continued to sing in public and tutor children even after her son finished his second term in office. She also remained active in local politics, counting among one of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s early supporters during his first run for office in 2010.

“My mom could be impulsive but she was resolute and headstrong in her intentions,” said Lewis Williams, her oldest son. “Mom was at her best when she crusaded for others. She had her own brand of love and was always happy if there was music and singing. I want to thank D.C. for giving my mother 15 years to live the dream of her life.”

Judith Terra, chair of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, recounted moments when Williams recited scripture or broke into song during phone conversations. She said that D.C.’s First Mother, her friend of nine years, changed her life and challenged her in various ways.