In the following account John C. Hughes, chief oral historian for the Washington State Legacy Project, discusses the life and legacy of Lillian Walker, who has been a civil rights activist in Bremerton, Washington, since World War II. Established in 2008 by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, The Legacy Project conducts oral histories and writes biographies of citizens “who have made extraordinary contributions to the political life of Washington State.”
Lillian Walker began staging civil rights sit-ins in the Naval Shipyard city of Bremerton in 1941 when thousands of newly arriving Negro war workers encountered “We cater to white trade only” signs practically wherever they went. Lillian and her late husband, James, promptly helped organize a branch of the NAACP. The signs started coming down.
The centennial year of the NAACP found her still in the trenches, spunky as ever at 95 and checking her e-mail regularly. When she was young, she dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she was born the wrong color and the wrong gender at the wrong time in the wrong place. Still, there’s no bitterness over the fact that she and James took on an assortment of part-time janitorial jobs for 40 years to make ends meet and give their kids a better life. Someone once asked her, “Why are you always smiling?” “Frowning and cursing,” she replied, “that’s not going to make you any friends.”
She has been “educating people,” as she puts it, about racial equality for as long as she can remember – from the school yard when she was 8 to a Woolworth’s soda fountain in the 1950s.
She is an icon in her community, with a host of friends who love and revere her. Her congressman says she personifies community spirit; the candidates for mayor want their signs in her yard. She has been alive for nearly a century of American history – and made history. There have been 17 presidents in her lifetime, from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. She met the 32nd, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In her lifetime, Lillian Walker has seen America move from lynching