by Marcus Harrison Green
Some called her mentor, to others she was a friend, Samaritan, confidante, counselor, leader, entrepreneur, queen. But no matter their preferred moniker, all came to pay tribute to the life of Vickie Williams on Saturday afternoon at Skyway’s Holy Temple Evangelistic Center.The longtime owner of Seattle’s only black-owned bookstore, Lem’s Life Enrichment Bookstore, in the Columbia City neighborhood, was laid to rest in a funeral attended by more than 600 people, including local officials and community luminaries, and a large swath of the black community.
The crowd quickly swelled past the point the church could accommodate. Chairs soon became scarce, which meant nearly a hundred had to stand throughout the two and a half hour service. However, no one made even a mild fuss. They were there to commemorate the life of someone who had indelibly influenced their own.
“I know there are tears today but welcome them as tears of healing,” Bridgette Hempstead said to the crowd as she opened the ceremony.
Hempstead, a longtime friend of Williams wrote a remembrance of her passing for the Emerald and served as MC at the Memorial. She shared news that the South End community had raised enough money to cover the March rent for the bookstore Williams and her partner Aaliyah Messiah had owned for almost two decades.
After readings from the Christian Bible’s Old Testament and the reciting of African proverbs, horns blew in Williams’ honor. Bishop Enoch Lee Brooks Ysreal and Lady Paula Ysreal then rhetorically asked the crowd, “This is a celebration, right?” before launching into a song with the chorus “Vickie ‘roadrunner’ Williams,” in reference to the go-getter stamina that was her trademark.
The crowd rose to their feet, clapping their hands. Most wore purple, Vickie’s favorite color, and some had tears streaming down their face as they repeated the stanza “Celebrating in the kingdom, celebrate her life, Vickie ‘roadrunner’ Williams…”
As people shouted words of the song at the top of their lungs, and some found tambourines to play, the scene became more reminiscent of Sunday praise and worship services at the Center rather than a Saturday funeral. The scene recalled jazz virtuoso Wynton Marsalis’ quote about black funerals: “We’re sad to see you go, but damn are we glad you lived!”
After Hempstead invited the Ysreal duo to perform a brief encore local poet Geneiva Arunga gave a stirring rendition of one of William’s favorite poems, Maya Angelou’s classic poem, “Still I Rise,” which received a loud ovation at its conclusion.
It was then time for official proclamations, one each from the state, county, and city.
King County Councilmember Larry Gossett went first, relating that he and Williams shared the same birthday along with the courage to forsake convention.
“Most bookstores you have to go inside to purchase a book, but she said I’m going out to where the people are. Vicki would try to get invited to any event, but even if she wasn’t she would go and bring information to educate people,” he quipped to a round of laughter.
He then went on to read the proclamation that called her Life Enrichment Bookstore the “epicenter for African-American events” expressing a message of “Black self-love and empowerment.” And with that March 11th was proclaimed Vickie Anne Williams Day in King County.
Dominique Stephens then took to the stage, representing Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s office.
“Ms. Vickie provided so many intersections,” Stephen’s said acknowledging how Williams provided a safe social and physical space to several black and LGTBQIA+ youth throughout her years operating the bookstore. “She was a cultural incubator. She paved a past for us to pick up. I’m thankful to Ms. Vickie for what she did for my life.”
Sharon Tomiko Santos then read a resolution on behalf of herself and 37th District representative Eric Pettigrew, and State Senator Rebecca Saldana.
Ali Hassan Messiah, Williams’ godson, who forewarned the crowd about his shyness and apprehension to public speaking, fought back tears as he held the stage for nearly 40 minutes recounting the life lessons imparted by one of the women who helped raise him.
“Imagine passing from this life to the next. Did you aid the sick and weak when they couldn’t aid themselves? Did you continuously learn and teach others? Did you right the rights, and forgive the wrongs? Did you love yourself enough so you were capable of loving others,” he asked.
“Everyone knows that Ms. Vickie Williams did,” he concluded.
A trio of preachers then eulogized the owner of Seattle’s only black-owned bookstore, punctuated by Fai’zah Bradford, Williams’ goddaughter, sharing a story that epitomized Williams’ generosity, sometimes in the face of apparent common sense.
“She brought a homeless man into the house to stay one day. No one knew his name. No one knew where he was from. No one knew his history. We weren’t calling [her actions] kind, we were calling it crazy!” She joked.
“But when we asked Vickie why she did it, she said: I did it because he was cold.”
Another song was played and then attendees filed outside to witness a dozen doves being released in Williams’ memory.
And while the immediate past of the woman they loved was primarily on the minds of most, some looked to the future in knowing it would take a collective effort to preserve Williams’ bookstore, in a city with rapid transformation as its default setting.
“We as a community need to do whatever it takes to keep Life Enrichment Bookstore here. Go to the Go Fund Me Page, and pitch in however you can,” Dominique Stephens told attendees.
If the community that turned out to honor her life on Saturday, does the same in honoring her life’s work, the legacy of Williams and her bookstore has many chapters yet untold.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter@mhgreen3000
Featured image Susan Fried