Iola Williams, the first African-American to serve on the San Jose City Council, died Thursday night surrounded by her family in Texas.
Williams, who lost a battle with Parkinson’s disease, was 83 years old.
In 1979, Williams became the first African-American lawmaker appointed to the City Council after serving on the Franklin-McKinley School Board. Williams served on the council for 12 years, including two terms as vice mayor.
Williams retired from public office in 1991 and returned to her hometown of Hattiesburg where she served in leadership roles at several community organizations, including the Hattiesburg Convention Commission.
Williams moved to Lampasas, Texas, to be closer to family after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
In 2016, she returned to San Jose to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award — which was renamed after her — at the African-American Community Service Agency’s 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon.
“I don’t brag – I get things done,” Williams said at the time. Former Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who met Williams in 1976 and worked on her school board campaign, called her a “legend and a pioneer.”
Yeager said on Sunday they continued “to be friends and co-conspirators” for 40 years.
“Iola was a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement,” Yeager said. “As the first African American to serve on the San Jose City Council, she led the way for other minorities to run for office. She was a fierce fighter for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights.”
When the local gay organization BAYMEC held its first dinner in 1986, Yeager said Williams was the only elected official who attended.
“Her moral compass never wavered. Never once did she worry about how her support of disenfranchised people would affect her political career,” added Yeager, now the executive director of BAYMEC. “I’ll miss her great sense of humor, her compassion, and her unwavering belief in equality for all.”
Longtime political scientist Terry Christensen said Williams was a major supporter of the shift to district elections and an advocate for neighborhoods. She once cast a critical vote to keep 10th and 11th Streets as one-way streets because of cross-town traffic concerns.
“As a council member she was a facilitator and mediator, helping to bring people (and votes) together,” Christensen said. “She was a righteous leader on civil rights and was particularly significant for the African American community, but she stood up for all minorities, including the LGBTQ community when others balked. As a first-generation district council member, she was critical in resetting city priorities to focus on neighborhoods and neighborhood services.”
Christensen said when Williams was first elected to the City Council, she often stopped by his house in Naglee Park for coffee on her way to City Hall. She later told friends that she would leave the morning conversations fired up to govern.
“(She) attributed this to our conversations — until she realized it was actually the high-octane coffee I was serving,” Christensen joked.
Williams is survived by seven children and seventeen grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.