Recognizing Seattle’s Black Women Heroes

by Irene Jagla

What makes a woman courageous? For those attending the Northwest African American Museum’s “Our Women of Courage” celebration, the answer came in recognizing the lives and works of Rev. Harriett Walden—peace advocate and police accountability activist—and DeCharlene Williams—salon and boutique owner and activist in her own right.

On Saturday, the sold-out event brought together 160 attendees—among them representatives of the Urban League, Black Lives Matter King County, and the MLK Jr. Organizing Committee—to recognize Rev. Walden and Ms. Williams as pillars of Seattle’s black community who sacrificed tirelessly for the betterment of those around them.

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Our Women of Courage celebrated the work of peace activist and police accountability advocate Rev. Harriett Walden. (Photo: Susan Fried)

The celebration was the brainchild of Patricia Valentine–who is proud to have had close relationships with both honorees–and is the result of her partnership with museum staff Marie Kidhe and Chukundi Salisbury. Valentine had wanted to create such a gathering for nearly two years. “I love these two women and they’ve impressed me and inspired me,” Valentine said in an interview prior to the event.

“There was just something in my heart telling me that these women need to be honored because they’re always out here in the community, pushing for us all, standing for us all, speaking for us all.” Valentine promised that although this occasion is the first of its kind, there will be more to follow.

Valentine, Kidhe, and Salisbury were hard at work planning the event in May when DeCharlene  Williams passed away from cancer. However, after discussions with Rita Green, DeCharlene’s daughter, and Rev. Walden, they decided to move forward as a way of celebrating Williams’ legacy and Walden’s ongoing achievements.

Walden’s social justice work spans decades, starting with the creation of Mothers for Police Accountability over 28 years ago. Her work is inspired by an authentic love of black people that she learned from a lifetime of black teachers.

In a May 2018 interview with The Seattle Medium, Walden expressed her love of being black, and during our own interview, she explained where this love comes from: “I love my ancestors. I love where I came from. I love blackness because I know being black is not a crime. And I authentically love black people. I love them because every day they go outside the house into a hostile environment and do the best they can to take care of their children and their family.”

When asked to describe herself, Walden said she’s a “tree shaker.” “I’m shaking the fruit off the tree that my grandfather planted. We need more tree shakers in the black community to shake off the fruit and pick it up,” she said, encouraging others to keep disrupting the status quo and advancing the work of black freedom fighters who came before them.

DeCharlene Williams, on the other hand, is best described as a pioneer. “She was a pioneer in every sense of the word,” Walden commented. “And sometimes pioneers need a machete to cut the road themselves, and that’s what she did.”

The late DeCharlene Williams promoted black entrepreneurship and anti-gentrification activism before “gentrification” became the buzzword it is today. Williams bought the space that would become her boutique and beauty salon in 1968. Then, during the seventies, she became a member of Mayor Royer’s 30-year city plan task force, where she learned first-hand about the city’s scheme to gentrify the Central District. She shared this knowledge with her fellow black business owners to empower them to protect their property from the city’s predatory real-estate and lending practices.

When she wasn’t participating in direct civic actions, Williams was busy establishing Washington state’s Juneteenth tradition as we know it today, working with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to make wigs for black cancer patients, and even serving as a beautician to some of her deceased clients at the Bonney Watson funeral home.

“She dreamed to make all women beautiful, even in passing,” Rev. Walden remembered. “That was part of her mantra.”

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Rita Green, daughter of DeCharlene Williams accepts the Our Women of Courage Award for her mother from Patricia Valentine-Jones. (Photo: Susan Fried)

During Saturday’s packed event, Walden and Williams were feted with a buffet spread by That Brown Girl Cooks, a dynamic call-and-response poem by Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Reneé Tolbert, and music from jazz vocalist Josephine Howell, whose acapella rendition of “Because You Loved Me” opened the celebration.

As master of ceremonies, Chukundi Salisbury introduced a number of speakers who described the importance of these two women. The first to speak was Sherri Day, longtime friend of Rev. Walden. In light of Walden’s interest in etymology, Day considered the definition of courage—“the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain without fear”—and declared that Walden’s ability to stay true to her convictions, while sharing love with so many people, is a manifestation of courage.

In her own speech, for which she received a standing ovation, Walden said that her strength comes from her ancestors and from the grandparents who raised her in Sanford, Florida. She recalled how her grandmother refused to leave her home even when the Ku Klux Klan rode into town. “Courage is inherited—it’s in your lineage. Everything I’ve done in my adult life is because I wanted to make my grandmother proud.”

DeCharlene Williams surely would have been proud of her daughter, Rita Green, Education Chair for the NAACP, whose own words described her mother’s unapologetic blackness and persistent quest to better herself. “She was always taking some kind of class, going to some kind of meeting, or reading a book, and as a result she earned a doctorate in what was happening in the community, the city, the state, and the world,” Green said.

As well, she noted that her mother never rested in her fight against racism and gentrification, and neither should we. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” declared Green, “and now is not the time to be an armchair activist.”

Although Saturday’s event was a celebration of the courage these women had already shown, it also honored the lives of Rev. Walden and DeCharlene Williams by including a call to action here and now. In the end, Rita Green prompted the audience to attend Seattle City Council meetings—like the August 1 public discussion of Carmen Best’s confirmation as Seattle’s Chief of Police—to continue the work that DeCharlene Williams had always been so passionate about.

Feature Photo: Rev. Harriett Walden accepts the Our Woman of Courage Award. Photo by Susan Fried.