'An advocate for us': Salem's long-time voice for racial equality Willie Richardson dies
Willie Richardson, a champion for minority education and respected voice for racial equality in Salem for more than four decades, died Jan. 25.
She was 74.
A memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at Trinity Covenant Church, 5020 Liberty Road S. Viewing will be from 4-8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, at Virgil T. Golden Funeral Service, 605 Commercial St. SE.
Richardson was the first and still only Black person to serve on the Salem-Keizer Public Schools governing board and is the past president of Oregon Black Pioneers, whose board and staff posted condolences on Facebook:
"Willie's immeasurable impact on the organization, the city of Salem, and the state of Oregon will be felt for many generations."
Salem Art Association also posted condolences and celebrated Richardson's impact on its organization:
"At SAA, we got to know her both as an anti-racist advocate who pushed us to be more open and more inclusive in our shows and storytelling, as well as the proud owner and curator of hundreds of hats."
Coincidentally, "Hattitude: Hats from the Hatboxes of Willie Richardson," is on exhibit at Bush Barn Art Center and runs through Feb. 26. The show features a sampling of her church hat collection, or “crowns,” once considered an essential Sunday accessory and often a staple of Richardson's fashion.
"It wasn't intended, but it is like a beautiful living memorial," Matthew Boulay, executive director of Salem Art Association, said. "It's so rare for somebody's life to be captured in this way, and then the timing of her passing, it really is a tribute. It really captures her personality."
Per Richardson's wishes, the presentation "An Evening with Hattitude" on Thursday, Feb. 2, will continue as planned but is sold out. Salem Art Association has since added special extended hours from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, and Wednesday, Feb. 1, to see the show.
At 6:30 p.m. both days, there will be a short program about Richardson and her impact on the organization and the community, with an opportunity for attendees to share stories.
Close friends said Richardson had been dealing with ongoing health issues.
"Willie was a very private person," said Gwen Carr, who worked with Richardson on Oregon Black Pioneers. "She swore several of us to secrecy months ago."
Those who attended a Jan. 13 reception for the opening of the hat exhibit may have suspected her health was declining. Richardson used a wheelchair during the event.
"I feel so blessed with the timing of the show," Boulay said. "Her spirit lives on in so many ways, not just in the hats, but in her advocacy."
She got involved to advocate for her children
Richardson moved to Salem in 1978 with her husband, Thomas, and their three young children. She knew very little about the state or the city they would call home.
"I did not realize that I was coming into a place where for days on end, the only Black persons I was going to see was my family because there were so few," she said during a 2021 interview with the Statesman Journal.
Richardson quickly learned racism and discrimination were more subtle in Oregon. Where she came from, she said, you knew if someone disliked you because of the color of your skin because it was out in the open.
She grew up in the South. She lived through the Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, segregated bathrooms and water fountains. While there were no uprisings and marches in her South Carolina hometown, she remembers riding a bus 25 miles past two white high schools to get to her school.
Her children were the only Black children in their classrooms when they arrived in Salem.
Richardson got involved right away in the community. She showed up anywhere there was a meeting, including the school board and city council.
"I am not necessarily a person who is going to be a major voice out there with a bullhorn at a rally," she once told the Statesman Journal. "I'm not a marcher. But I'll sure bust in a board meeting in a hot minute."
Recognizing Black history in Oregon
Richardson was elected in 1987 to the school board, advocating for her children and other minorities. She was named that same year as one of the 10 most influential women in Salem, second-youngest on the list at 37.
She also was on the Salem Human Rights Commission and worked for the state from 1978 to 1991, holding several positions.
She ventured into retail in 1993, opening Willie's Fashion Hats and More. The business evolved into a downtown retail shop for women's formal wear called A Time for Elegance.
Richardson around that time helped revive a dormant nonprofit started by a group including the late Jackie Winters. It was called Northwest Black Pioneers, and its mission was to research, recognize and commemorate the culture and heritage of Oregon's Black community.
Oregon was added to the name, Northwest eventually removed.
One of the group's first visible projects was installing a large granite marker along the main drive of Salem Pioneer Cemetery to recognize Black individuals buried in unmarked graves. Many of them lived and worked in Salem at a time when there were exclusion laws making it illegal for Black people to reside in Oregon.
Richardson retired from retail in 2010 to spend more time on the mission of Oregon Black Pioneers. It continued to expand, presenting lectures and exhibits all over the state.
She was the long-time board president, serving alongside Carr, who held various board positions and said her friend was the perfect person to be the chief fundraiser.
"Willie was the type who could talk to anybody, college presidents, chairmen of the board, bank presidents," Carr said. "She was very persuasive. She could go anywhere and come out with a wad of cash."
Recruiting Black teachers to Salem-Keizer
Richardson has been just as persuasive with school superintendents, or at least she has had their ear on the subject of racial equality.
"She knew every one of them, marched in their office, and demanded accountability," Carr said.
Richardson fought not just for students but staff. She helped recruit Black teachers and administrators.
Cynthia Richardson, no relation to Willie, was one of those recruits. She joined the district in 1997 and has been a teacher and administrator and is now the director of the Office of Student Equity, Access, and Advancement.
"Her legacy is that she definitely is a pioneer, a Black pioneer who chose to come here, who chose to make this a community where African American/Black people could come," Cynthia said. "What she did is she taught us how to survive, how to navigate the system, and how to supportive of each other and grow and learn.
"She worked hard to remove barriers. She was an advocate for us and fought for us."
Capi Lynn is the Statesman Journal's news columnist. Send comments, questions and tips to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-399-6710. Follow her work on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Salem's long-time voice for racial equality Willie Richardson dies