Leonard Williams '56: Rest in peace, Your Honor
This tribute, written by Tony Allen '93 and Monté T. Squire '95, was first published in the Wilmington News Journal.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden often recalled how his father would say, “It is a lucky man who wakes up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows exactly what he is about to do and believes that it still matters.”
The quote was very present in our minds when we heard Judge Lenny Williams passed away [March 3, 2013]. Until the end of his life, Judge Williams was one of those blessed men and we were lucky to have the opportunity to work with him, all too briefly, on some of the things he had cared about his entire life.
For years, we knew Judge Williams casually, which is to say we shared a few friends and exchanged pleasantries from time to time. However, we were always completely aware of his legacy and understood the importance and gravity of his work and the example he set for our own lives and professional careers.
Because of the work of Attorney Louis L. Redding, who eventually became Judge Williams’ mentor and law partner, Judge Williams was able to complete his undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware in the mid-1950s, when there were literally just a handful of African-American students on campus.
We were students at the University of Delaware 40 years later, when there were still just a few of us, but there was an unwritten expectation that we, as African-American students, would not only do our level-best academically, but also take personal responsibility to make the university a better, more inclusive environment than it was when we arrived. That spirit was born with the likes of Judge Williams and the very small cohort of African-American/UD pioneers in the middle of the 20th century. Their collective legacy endures.
Judge Williams went on to great acclaim as an accomplished attorney and Municipal Court Judge. In his later years, he became “mentor-in-chief” for a program at Howard High School, his alma mater, for juniors and seniors aspiring to careers in law. He often invited the students to the Redding House, whose restoration he counted among his most prized accomplishments.
There, Judge Williams recounted the harsh realities of racial discrimination in an era gone by, the remnants of which even the brightest young people would have to endure in a de jure and de facto “separate but equal” America. But he never ended the story there. For Judge Williams, the beauty of progress was that it requires not only the tough, steady hand of determined advocacy, but also the development of a crop of successful young professionals who feel compelled to help and serve others.
Even in our early 40s, we were fortunate enough to be a part of those lessons. One came last year when Judge Williams and Judge Joshua Martin approached the African American Empowerment Fund at the Delaware Community Foundation about saving the Hockessin Colored School No. 107 from imminent foreclosure. While the details of that effort have been well documented and are rife with controversy, Judge Williams’ message to us was simple:
HCS No. 107 is where the Delaware cases leading to Brown vs. Board of Education began. It stands as a reminder that access to quality public education is not something simply to be hoped for. Rather, it must be demanded, and that demand is as important today as it was 60 years ago. We could no more let HCS No. 107 be torn down or lost to commercial development than we could allow another promising student of color drop out of high school based on some artificial barrier of geography, income or perceived cultural deficiency.
That day, Judge Williams asserted what was both obvious and profound: Our history and our future are inextricably linked, and we – all of us – are beholden to both of them. Because of his leadership, the African American Empowerment Fund and a group of concerned citizens, HCS No. 107 was saved. Now, we are working with the Friends of HCS No. 107, an organization Judge Williams chaired until his passing, to restore it.
For us, that was the Lenny Williams we knew. We were too young to recount the details of his successful judicial and legal career. We were not close enough to have had the full benefit of his wisdom. But over the last few years, we have been lucky to watch him put both feet on the floor and, every day, believe that what he did still mattered – for our community, for our country and for all of us.
Lenny, you were right. Rest in peace, Your Honor. Rest in peace.
Tony Allen is chairman of the African American Empowerment Fund of Delaware, an executive at Bank of America and a Whitney M. Young Awardee for Advancements in Racial Equality. Monté T. Squire is president of the Delaware Barristers Association, a local affiliate of the National Bar Association, and an attorney at Young Conaway, Stargatt & Taylor, LLP.