Williams, a strong voice in community, determined to make a difference


Rosa Williams was the first African American person to obtain a library card from the old library in downtown Gainesville and has since been a strong voice in the community, shown at Tacachale Developmental Disability Center where she is a volunteer in Gainesville on Thursday, November 21, 2013.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.

After Rosa Parks sat, Rosa Williams walked.

It was the late 1950s, back when blacks and whites in Gainesville had different water fountains, different restaurants, different schools. African-Americans went to the Negro library on Northwest First Street, where the shelves were stocked with books with missing pages and coloring in the margins.

“I refused to go down there,” Williams recalled. “I wanted to go downtown like everybody else.”

She walked downtown to the library for white residents, but she couldn’t get a library card.

“I figured if I kept going down there, they’d probably end up giving me one,” Williams said recently. “Get tired of seeing me.”

Six or seven visits later, she became the first black person to get a card at the old downtown library on East University Avenue.

That might have been the last thing Williams ever did for her own benefit.

Williams, who celebrated her 80th birthday in September, plans on retiring next year from her post as director of volunteer service at Tacachale, a residential facility for people with developmental disabilities.

For Williams, retirement just means she’ll have more time to devote to all her community service work, particularly Gainesville’s Black on Black Crime Task Force.

Williams was born in Starke and lived a short while in Gainesville but grew up in Bronson after her mother remarried. She knew little of her father, Lucious Williams, and was raised by her mother, Catherine Hayes, and her stepfather, Roosevelt.

After Rosa Williams graduated from high school, she and her family moved back to Gainesville.

In her early years, Williams said, she would come home late after a night out with friends. Her mother would not be happy, she said.

After about the third or fourth warning, Williams came home one night to find her clothes sitting on the porch. She tried the door. It was locked.

She was 19 years old when her mother put her out.

“That was the best thing she could’ve did for me,” Williams said. “I think it hurt her more than it hurt me.”

But Williams said she “had really good parents,” and her mother taught her responsibility. She lived with a friend until she found a room for herself.

Williams made $13.50 a week at her first job running the elevator at Alachua General Hospital, the now-razed facility that for decades was Gainesville’s primary public hospital. She cleaned houses on the weekends, working as a maid for Jane and Deborah Stearic until the beginning of the ’70s.

The Stearics encouraged her to join them at meetings to help the black community, where she met former Gainesville Mayor Jean Chalmers.

“In those days, the black part of town didn’t have running water,” Chalmers said. “It was tough to be black.”

The group met the third Sunday of every month at the Negro library. In 1959, Chalmers met a quiet woman with a strong country accent who came to meetings with the Stearics.

“They recognized that Rosa was extraordinarily intelligent,” Chalmers said. “She didn’t say very much, but when she did say something, it was pretty darn profound.”

In 1963, the Gainesville Women for Equal Rights formed, and Chalmers asked Williams to come on board. Sometimes the two of them visited restaurants in Gainesville to see if they would be served. Usually, the owners refused to serve Williams.

Williams started going to NAACP meetings and was the first vice president of the Gainesville chapter. Back then, members packed into Mount Carmel church every Sunday night.

After leaving the Stearics, Williams worked as a cook at the Bell Nursery Daycare Center and as supervisor of outreach at the Community Action Agency, from which Hawthorne Daycare Center, the High Springs Daycare Center, the Archer Daycare Center, the Newberry Daycare Center and the Northeast Daycare Center got started.

“I came up as a very, very poor person,” Williams said. “I was interested in helping out young people.”

She quickly became the voice of Gainesville’s poorer neighborhoods, working with the Community Action Agency to provide cooking classes, tutoring and other programs for Gainesville’s youth and senior citizens.

She’s a tiny woman with thick glasses and short, curly hair, but when Williams told the community how to vote, Chalmers said, they would listen.

“She went from housekeeper to social worker almost overnight,” Chalmers said. “No one would run for office without sitting down with Rosa.’’

Williams has helped politicians like Leveda Brown, Charles Chestnut, Kate Barnes and Neil Butler with their elections. She threw barbecues at her house for Florida’s state legislators. Once, former President Jimmy Carter visited her home.

Former state representative and city commissioner David C. Flagg remembers Williams’ time on the Shands Board of Directors in the 1980s. Educated people, with degrees and white coats, would try to figure out policy and managerial information at meetings, Flagg said. Then Williams, who took a few classes at Santa Fe College, would speak up: “Well, is it good for the people?”

“The room went quiet,” he said.

Flagg met Williams in 1985 while campaigning for a City Commission seat, and they “hit it off right away.” In the early stages of his campaign, he visited her house and introduced himself.

“I’ve been told if I want to have any chance of winning the commission race, I needed you on my side, Miss Rosa,” Flagg said, as he began telling her his beliefs and platform.

“She said, ‘OK. I like you,’ ” Flagg said, adding that she immediately recommended a prominent pastor in the community to meet.

Flagg asked Williams about the separation between church and state. “She responded, ‘David, you want me to help you or not?’ ” Flagg remembered.

Flagg was elected to Gainesville’s City Commission that year, and Williams helped him with his state legislative campaign when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1988.

Although she was the former chairwoman of the Democrat Club, Williams never wanted to run for office herself. Her pride and joy remains her involvement with a long list of community programs, including United Gainesville Community Development Center-Porters’ Community, Gainesville Commission on the Status of Women and the Gainesville Neighborhood Housing board. Reichert House Youth Academy, a program started in 1987 to support at-risk, predominantly black males, was one of her biggest endeavors.

After the Community Action Agency and Bell Daycare Center, Williams worked for Alachua County Coordinated Childcare until she started her current job at Tacachale.

Now, she helps process volunteer applications and gets people to come out to activities for Tacachale residents like bingo games and dances. Throughout the year, residents at Tacachale participate in sports ranging from swimming to basketball.

Williams heads to the bowling alley every Tuesday when the Tacachale residents play. “I like to get them out in the community and let people see they are just like we are,” she said.

Williams has no children, but she treats her nieces and nephew like her own. Her sister lives in Gainesville and her nephew makes trips from Flemington about three or four times a week.

Williams was married “a long, long, long time ago, and that was goodbye and good luck,” she said. “If I had a husband, I don’t think I would be able to do what I do.”

The darkest moment in Williams’ life came in 1972, when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 2 months later.

“I believe in the Lord,” Williams said, “What’s gon’ happen gon’ happen.”

After her mother’s death, Williams took a few classes on community service at Santa Fe College. In 1995, her work in the community was recognized with a scholarship in her name. The Rosa B. Williams scholarship is given to African-American employees of UF Health Shands Hospital (and dependents) who seek a degree in a health-related program at Santa Fe College.

Although she plans on retiring in February or March, Williams said she’s still fighting for change in Gainesville, particularly “getting these teenagers outta all these gangs they’re in.”

As chair for Gainesville’s Black on Black Crime Task Force, she works with the community to combat the violence where it starts: in the neighborhood.

The first Wednesday of every month, about 60 to 70 people, black and white, meet at the police department or other locations to explore different factors of crime in Gainesville. Throughout her time as chair, Williams said, Police Chief Tony Jones has taught her a few things about the community.

“Oh God, it’s possibly been greater than 25 years ago,” Jones said of the first time he met Williams at a community meeting. “She was pretty much about business.”

While he brought her information from a law enforcement standpoint, Williams was instrumental in the police department’s efforts to adopt a community-policing strategy instead of traditional policing, Jones said.

Instead of fact-driven, traditional policing, community policing encourages officers to sit down and talk with people about their issues, Jones said.

But despite Williams’ work for others, Jones said she has never sought out any recognition. If anyone wanted to give her something, “you almost have to do it by surprise.”

But that didn’t stop Chalmers. During her time as mayor, Chalmers made the old Negro library at 524 NW First St. the Rosa B. Williams Recreation Center.

Chalmers still remembers the conversation the two had in the early ’60s, preparing for the first time black and white people gathered to eat dinner in Gainesville at the library.

“What if everyone brings meat?” Chalmers asked Williams. “What if everyone brings desserts?”

“Jean, if you do the Lord’s work, you’ll distribute the food,” Williams told her.

“That’s been almost a guide for me my whole life,” Chalmers said. “Rosa says she doesn’t remember it, but I remember it.”

Williams is always so busy remembering other people she hardly finds time to remember herself, her friends say. She has lived at the same house on Northwest Fourth Street for 25 to 30 years but she said more often than not she doesn’t go home after work — she’s off to some meeting.

In her 80 years, she knows change doesn’t come from waiting. Sometimes you have to get up and walk, she said.

“If I go in one door and that door is slammed in my face, I’ll go right on to the other door,” Williams said.

“I’ll find some way to get that door open.”

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