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He opened racial doors in Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG — As he walked the 1-mile loop around leafy Lake Vista Park, Ike Williams could not resist talking to the young people he met about their futures.

He would ask how they were doing in school. And if they had plans to further their education.

Even as his Alzheimer's disease worsened, Mr. Williams always encouraged them to make the most of their lives.

Certainly, he had made the most out of his. Mr. Williams emerged from poverty and segregation to become one of the city's first black lawyers. He founded several community organizations, ran for public office and led the St. Petersburg NAACP.

Mr. Williams died Monday (March 16, 2009) after years of declining health. He was 82. His wife, Anne, died just three days earlier at 83.

Mr. Williams kept a soft, leather-bound scrapbook of his accomplishments. His son, Army Sgt. Javier Williams, held it carefully on Friday, the way someone would handle a full dish of water.

"He always said, 'Don't forget where you came from, or you'll wind up back there again,' " said Williams, 47.

For days, he had been stacking his parents' household belongings into piles. But he would not touch the three photos of Anne Williams that hung side by side on the wall.

Anne Williams met her future husband in New York. She made his career her top priority. They were married 54 years.

Isaiah Williams was brought up by a great aunt in Fort Meade. He stuttered as child. Because he spit when trying to get words out of his mouth, the neighborhood kids gave him a nickname: Juicy.

"People were making bets on the streets of St. Petersburg's black community that this poor boy would not make it," Times writer Peggy Peterman wrote in 1985. "Some said, 'That boy can't be a lawyer, he can't even talk.' "

That stuttering boy became the valedictorian of Gibbs High School's Class of 1945. He joined the Army, then attended New York University for undergraduate and law school at a time when Florida colleges were segregated. He returned to St. Petersburg and in 1959 formed a law firm with Fred Minnis, another black lawyer, on 22nd Street S.

At a time when segregation was openly supported by Jim Crow laws, black residents often found it hard to get adequate legal representation, said University of South Florida historian Ray Arsenault.

"It was an enormous problem," Arsenault said. "They had to go hat in hand to a white lawyer who may or may not be sympathetic to their legal rights. So when Ike Williams and Fred Minnis emerged, it was an enormous milestone."

The office paved the way for younger lawyers such as Frank Peterman, Morris Milton and future Circuit Judge James Sanderlin — the first African-American to hold an elected countywide office in Pinellas.

In the meantime, Mr. Williams pushed his concerns for racial equality forward. He founded the Southside Republican Club because he felt the Democratic Party took black voters for granted. He led voter registration drives.

Mr. Williams lost a City Council bid in 1963, but made world news for having made it past the primary. Edward R. Murrow called the development "very useful in our continuing effort to tell the story of progress against racial prejudice."

He twice ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature, but found influence as St. Petersburg NAACP president from 1967 to 1970, during which time he pressured the city and county to integrate their personnel, especially in schools.

"He tried to open doors," said longtime friend Elzo Atwater Jr., 53. "He was like Martin Luther King, trying to make a difference."

Through it all, Mrs. Williams stood protectively — perhaps fiercely — by her husband's side, a trait some found hard to take.

"She would let you know she was in the room," Atwater said. "She had that kind of attitude. He would sometimes have to explain her actions, but why not? They were one."

But finances were a problem for Mr. Williams. He was charitable, once giving $50,000 to Bethel Community Baptist Church. He took on clients who could not pay him.

But in 1990, the Florida Bar suspended Mr. Williams and began to investigate claims that he failed to pay clients their share of settlements. A month later, Mr. Williams voluntarily resigned from the Bar.

Unable to practice law, Mr. Williams did consulting and remained active in Blacks Against Dangerous Drugs, which he founded in 1986, and the African-American Voters Research and Education Committee.

His popularity in the black community remained strong. The Rev. Kim Wells of Lakewood United Church of Christ remembers marching alongside Mr. Williams in a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in the early 1990s.

"Every third or fourth person called out a direct greeting: 'Hey, attorney Williams,' or 'How are you, Mr. Williams?'

"I thought, 'does everybody in St. Petersburg know Ike Williams?'" Wells recalled.

"Even if he lived to be 180 years old, we will always call him lawyer Williams," Atwater said.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Williams' health had worsened in recent weeks. On leave from the Army, Javier Williams was with his mother, who had suffered from congestive heart failure, when she died March 13 at Hospice Woodside.

On Sunday, he visited his father at Westminster Suncoast. "When he saw me he started smiling," Williams said. "He looked at me and said, 'Hey, son, you looking pretty.' "

On Monday, Javier Williams got a phone call. Just three days after Anne Williams died, Ike Williams died, too.

About 150 people attended Mr. Williams' service Saturday at Lakewood United Church of Christ. After an invocation by the Rev. Frank Peterman, colleagues and family members paid tribute to him.

Guests who wished to honor Anne Williams did so by signing a guest book next to her husband's. Mrs. Williams requested that no service be held for her.

"Her thing was, if you didn't come to see her while she was alive, don't come to see her while she's gone," her son said.

Javier Williams never told his father that his mother had died. Given his father's precarious health, it didn't seem necessary.

"Even though he didn't know she was gone, he did know it spiritually," he said. "And he went and joined her."

. BIOGRAPHY

Isaiah W. Williams

Born: Dec. 15, 1926.

Died: March 16, 2009.

Survivors: son, Troy Javier Williams and his wife, Terre; daughter ,Tracie Davis; brother, Roosevelt Williams and his wife, Mary; and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews.

• To view a photo gallery of I.W. "Ike" Williams, go to links.tampabay.com.

He opened racial doors in Pinellas County 03/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 22, 2009 12:35am]

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