Virginia Hayes Williams, D.C.’s ‘first mother,’ dies at 87


Newly elected D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams at a press conference in November of 1998. At right is his mother, Virginia Hayes Williams. (Susan Biddle)

Virginia E. Hayes Williams, a professional singer turned postal worker who later sang her way across the District as the city’s “first mother,” died Thursday in Los Angeles. She was 87.

The death was of undetermined cause and came after a brief illness, said her son, former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Mrs. Williams had two children and was pregnant with a third in 1955 when she and her husband, Lewis Williams III, adopted 3-year-old Anthony Eggleton. The boy had been raised in foster care and did not speak, and she feared he might be sent to a home for mentally disabled children.

The Williamses raised the boy, who was renamed Anthony Allen Williams, alongside seven other children in a Los Angeles bungalow. Mrs. Williams worked as a postal clerk, having passed on a career as a professional singer in Hollywood to raise her large, devoutly Catholic family.

When her son embarked on an unlikely political career in the District in the late 1990s, becoming mayor when she was 70, Mrs. Williams moved to Washington and found many stages on which to share her voice.

She sang regularly at public events, from renditions of the National Anthem to recitals of “Happy Birthday” at city-
sponsored parties for centenarians. At a 1999 children’s concert at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, she sang a song called “You Can Make a Difference.”

“It lets people know that no matter how big or small, there’s something you can do to make life better,” she said.

Mrs. Williams also frequently represented her son at civic happenings, particularly those involving senior citizens, and recorded messages for a telephone system that checked up daily on elderly residents.

Her ubiquity turned into a minor headache for her son in 2001, when the city’s inspector general investigated whether a friend of Mrs. Williams had been improperly paid for driving her around town.

Virginia Elizabeth Hayes was born June 27, 1926, in Paducah, Ky., one of five children. She was adopted at age 12 by an uncle and aunt who lived in Englewood, N.J.

She studied music at the Washington Union Academy in the District as a girl, singing for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House on one occasion, but ended up rejecting a scholarship to the Julliard conservatory after her family told her, she recalled in 2000, that there was “no place for black women in opera.”

She arrived in California in the 1940s, where she moonlighted as a singer while working in the post office, appearing on Ray Charles records and off camera in movies including “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess.”

Even before her son sought public office, Mrs. Williams had some taste of political life. She was a community activist in Los Angeles, pressing for parks and recreation improvements and running for City Council there, finishing 16th in a field of 32.

When her son decided to seek the mayoralty, he sought her help. “He called me and said, ‘You’re the only person in the family that has had anything to do with politics,’ ” she recalled in 2010.

After he left office in January 2007, Mrs. Williams continued with her singing appearances and tutoring but also remained active in civic life and politics.

Mrs. Williams once referred to her most famous son as “God’s child” in an interview.

“I really feel he was born for a special purpose,” she said. “He’s one of those people who works hard and you never know what he’s thinking. The only thing that hurts me is when people misunderstand him.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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