Virginia Williams: Living Legacy
The depth and richness of African American history in Durham makes the marking of Black History Month especially poignant. Here, we seek to lift up the voices of our living legends.
You may know her as the woman depicted in the yellow dress on the “The Durham Civil Rights Mural” (pictured below). History remembers her as one of the Royal Seven, an activist who sat-in at a storefront in Durham before the Greensboro Four garnered national support three years later.
Virginia Williams has seen Durham undergo dramatic changes in the past seven decades.
“It wasn’t until people actually said that we had changed history that I understood,” Virginia Williams said, folding her hands gently in her lap. “It took me a while to realize that I had been a part of change. I’m the only one left in Durham to tell the story. When I speak, I’m speaking for the Royal Seven.”
Above: The "Durham Civil Rights Mural."
In Durham, black history lives and breathes as part of our foundation. Markers, murals, homes, and heritage continually remind us of the stories of our past and help us educate residents and visitors about how our foundation was laid.
Williams remembers a time when her parents couldn’t vote — though she proudly proclaims, “There’s nothing keeping us from voting now.” That steely glint in her eye persists as she tells stories of black-owned barbecue restaurants, barber shops, hotels, and movie theaters sitting side by side in the late fifties. “Then came the highway.”
Despite the arc of oppression and opposition African Americans have endured in this area, from enslavement at Stagville, to the destruction of Hayti, and the stubborn examples of inequities today, this distinct community was and is industrious and resolute, making indelible marks on Durham as entrepreneurs, artists, educators, politicians, business leaders, and engaged citizens.
Today, black entrepreneurship has taken on new forms: as present-day black-owned restaurants, shops, tech companies, services, and more, many of them on the cutting edge of their industries. Eighty-three-year-old Williams is proud of her past. But she’s also excited for the future. “As Durham grows, I want to be a part of it."
Grit, fortitude and the unapologetic pursuit of justice are lasting legacies of a community that influenced the progress of Americans toward equality from coast to coast. Join us as we remember and celebrate black history all year long on our website, in print, on social media, and at our Visitor Info Center.
Virginia Williams was interviewed and photographed at Provident 1898 in The Tower at Mutual Plaza in collaboration with the Durham Chamber of Commerce.