A Letter To My Mom

Mother in Chicago in park across from Water Tower in 2012

My Mom, Mrs. Lillian Williams of East St. Louis, Illinois

By Lillian Williams

Mom, thank you for so many things, but most of all for your courage.

Your life exemplifies extraordinary courage.

You never talk about your mountains, your difficulties, your problems.

You just keep going.

But you have a story. A magnificent story. A story that demonstrates what the word, courage, really means.

Growing up in the state of Mississippi, the children teased you because of your dark skin. They called you “Old Black Joe.” The nickname, “Joe,” has stuck throughout the years.

Family members and close friends still affectionately call you “Joe” today.

But, as a child, to be teased because of skin color is no small matter. It hurts.

How did you deal with the emotional scars? How did you summon the courage to stare down this open wound?

Yet you kept going.

You didn’t miss a beat, at least outwardly.

You were forced to step off the public sidewalks in the Deep South, when a white person approached. That was the practice during the racially segregated “Jim Crow” era of the South.

How did you keep your dignity in the face of such shame? I’ll never understand.

But, you kept going.

When your family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the 1930’s, you were known as the “smart” kid. You wrote poignant essays. You solved math problems that stumped other students. You recited classic poems.

Your favorite poem—one that you still recite today—was written by the famous poet Robert Herrick. One stanza goes like this:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

You recite that poem as a warning to your five children: Don’t waste even a moment of your time.

Yet, as the clock in your life ticks away—you’ve noted that some flowers bloom. Others do not, no matter how many seeds you plant.

In the 1930’s, for instance, the libraries, buses, parks, restaurants, and of course, schools, were racially segregated. And, they definitely were NOT EQUAL.

White citizens had more resources, more privileges than blacks.

You could not check out books from the local “whites-only” library.

You could not try on dresses in the fitting rooms of downtown retail shops.

Lynching was a punishment for blacks under the illegal Jim Crow justice system.

Yet, you, and others, just kept going. How? I’m not sure.

In the late 1930’s, you moved North to East St. Louis, Illinois, where you attended the all-black, segregated Lincoln High school. You said teachers there “marveled” that you, a child schooled in the Deep South, could compete so well with children up North. They actually said this to your face.

But you just kept going.

You recount how black children in those days were often “put back” a grade when they moved North. But not you. You graduated on time, and with top honors.

One day, at the high school, you saw a pamphlet featuring Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest, private historically black college. You said the beautiful campus grounds attracted your attention.

At Wilberforce, you met your husband, James E. Williams Sr., during a college dance. You often tell the story of how he saw you holding the coats of other students, because you couldn’t dance. He taught you to dance, and the rest is history, as they say.

Once again, though, you summoned more courage when World War II pitched you yet more challenges.

In the 1940s, James Williams and other young men would soon join the U.S. Armed Forces in the war effort. Think about that for a moment.

Williams would later receive an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, though legally-sanctioned segregation prevented blacks from fully participting as citizens in their own country at that time, simply because of their skin color. But he fought for his country anyway.

Though Williams, whom you later married, returned safely from a World War II overseas tour, others did not.

You once described screams students heard when your classmate, Essie, learned of her husband’s death in the war.

Years later, Essie captured that moment in her autobiography, Mama and the Hills of Home:
“I screamed. Dropping the phone. I lurched drunkenly up three flights of stairs crying. “No, no, not Vincent. God, you promised me. How could you break your word? How could you be so cruel, letting him die on my birthday?” For an instant my anger at God overwhelmed my grief. My heart raged while my spirit died.”

You, Essie, and others of that era endured so much pain, from so many sources. Yet you picked up the broken pieces. Essie graduated cum laude from Wilberforce. She was the senior class president, editor of the college newspaper and the yearbook. She organized your college reunions.

Essie was there when you and I traveled together to Wilberforce, Ohio, for one of those reunions. She was holding court. She was regal, well-spoken, everything you had described in conversations about her.

But there’s something else I remember about that reunion day.

That afternoon, your classmates had gathered for an informal reception. You were standing in the front of the room with Essie and a few friends.

I was sitting near the back next to one your classmates. Later I would learn he was a retired dentist from Indiana.

Suddenly, when he spotted you at the front, he exclaimed, “There’s Lillian Croom!”

“She was the smartest person in our biology class. She was the lab assistant. She was smarter than all the guys in the class.”

I looked at him, and proudly said, “Lillian Croom is my mother!” He went on to rave about your keen mind.

You, Mom, are talented in so many ways. But best of all, you’re generous with those talents.

You graduated with honors from Wilberforce University. You returned to East St. Louis, Illinois, where your parents lived. You taught first grade, and later science classes in public schools there. You won the coveted Golden Apple award for teaching excellence. You helped your sisters and brothers get through college.

Your civic contributions are well-known. You volunteered to raise money for the police and fire departments. You’ve held leadership positions on various community boards. You were a founding member of the East St. Louis Women’s Club.

When your husband wanted to attend law school at night, you supported that dream too. He later launched the first Legal Aid Society of St. Clair County, which provided free advice and representation to low-income residents.

After that, he was elected Mayor of East St. Louis in 1971. The Oct. 10, 1971, Metro East Journal quoted you, saying, “It’s been a great adjustment for the children. We just don’t have time for the things we used to do. We’re able to manage breakfast together, but my husband doesn’t get home until late in the evening now.”

Nevertheless, Mom, you kept everything together, as usual.

When your husband died in 1983, you kept the family on track.

You made certain that your two children still in college completed their studies.

Your grandchildren today follow in your footsteps. One granddaughter will graduate from Stanford University’s medical school next year. A grandson is studying computer science at Stanford. Another granddaughter is working as an entertainment show producer for Fox TV network. Another granddaughter is a project manager for a Silicon Valley firm. Another grandson is studying to become a documentary producer.

No doubt, they won’t give up.

You are the sterling example.

Happy Mother’s Day 2017!

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