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Leon Williams, pioneering Black leader, honored with a lifetime achievement award

The award came days after Williams’ 100th birthday

At 100 years old, Leon L. Williams continues adding to a lengthy and impressive list of accomplishments.

The pioneering Black leader and retired San Diego politician became a centenarian on July 21, and on Saturday, the county awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award.

He was presented with the accolade during a ceremony held at the County Administration Center where he received multiple standing ovations from a crowd of 200 people that included family, friends and government officials.

“We want to recognize not your birthday but 100 years of trailblazing civic leadership,” said Jordan Marks, the county’s assessor taxpayer advocate and one of a dozen speakers who recognized Williams with honorary remarks and certificates.

Dressed in a checkered blazer and his trademark fedora, the soft-spoken and sharp 100-year-old walked to the podium to show his appreciation for the celebration. He shared that he sometimes doesn’t sleep at night because he’s thinking about “how we could create a better society, a more respectful and appreciative society.”

“I never found the answer to how we can do it but I think about it all the time,” he said, advising that people should “just pay close attention to who you are, who the other people are and how much you can help other people.”

To summarize Williams’ century of life is no easy feat but officials described him as a “trailblazer,” “hero,” “leader,” “legendary” and an overall “kind-hearted, humble” individual.

The civic leader holds a thread of pioneering titles: the first Black homeowner in his San Diego neighborhood when he bought his home on E Street in 1947, despite a Whites-only restriction. He was San Diego’s first Black city council member when he took office in 1969 and the county’s only Black supervisor to date. He served as president of the California State Association of Counties, as board member of the National Association of Counties and chaired the Metropolitan Transit District for over a decade.

Williams started the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., Centre City Development Corp. and the local Hate Crimes Registry. He is the namesake of the county’s Human Relations Commission. The county revived the board in 2020 after its predecessor, which Williams had created during his tenure as supervisor, dissolved in 2018.

One new thing was also named after him Saturday. Mayor Todd Gloria issued a proclamation recognizing July 30 as Leon Williams Day in San Diego.

“Leon Williams means that this city is freer and fairer because of his public service,” said Gloria.

Officials recalled that San Diego was a different place when Oklahoma-born Williams arrived in 1941. He faced racial discrimination, including during his time as a council member. While reviewing a council agenda near Balboa Park once, a police officer approached him and drew his gun at him, questioning what Williams was doing in the area.

While in his 90s, Williams shared the incident and others in his memoir, “Together We Can Do More: The Leon Williams Story,” which was written with Lynne Carrier.

Current leaders, many of whom are also people of color or are also “firsts” in their roles, thanked Williams for paving the way for a more equitable San Diego.

“It is not remiss and I have not forgotten that I stand on your shoulders,” said Malia Cohen, the first Black woman elected to the California State Board of Equalization.

In honor of Williams’ civic work and held concurrently during the ceremony, the county put on a resource fair.

“(We’re) recruiting for the next generation of Leon Williamses,” said Marks. “We are ready, from student workers to rank and file employees, to find the next leader.”