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Progressive Voice: A Tribute to Dr. Talmadge Williams

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Larry RobertsThis week, Arlington lost one of its finest community leaders — Dr. Talmadge Williams.

While others were closer to Talmadge and will offer fitting tributes about his many fine attributes and accomplishments, he and I shared many experiences and values. I believe it is fitting for a column titled Progressive Voice to honor someone like Talmadge Williams, who worked tirelessly, humbly and effectively to promote progressive values in Arlington and to promote Arlington County as a progressive community that seeks constantly to move toward Lincoln’s “More Perfect Union.”

Talmadge and I got to know each other through community activities and a shared interest in politics and education. He knew that I was the son and brother of educators and of my roles as an officer and director of a national civil rights organization, helping to elect pioneering African-American elected officials Charles Monroe and Frank Wilson, and working to ensure that Democratic Party organizations at the local and state level reflected the important roles played by African Americans in our County and our Commonwealth.

I knew that Dr. Williams had been pursuing similar efforts far longer, more effectively, and with great passion, skill and grace.

When I reached out to Talmadge to ask him to help me with some of my efforts, he could not have been more encouraging, empowering, and inclusive. Not only did he open doors (literally and figuratively) to homes, churches, and organizations, but he honored me by asking me to help him achieve goals that he was pursuing and participate in organizations he was leading or in which he was an integral figure.

Over the years, Dr. Williams offered advice and wise counsel on an array of issues and community concerns and opportunities. He traveled successfully in so many circles in Arlington that his insights were incredibly valuable and helped move many conversations forward toward solutions. The trust he engendered across the board allowed important dialogues to take place that led to greater understanding and accomplishments.

Though he was humble, Dr. Williams was forceful and firm in his beliefs. His work as president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP showcased his ability to move people to achieve objectives, insist on accountability, and constantly move forward with purpose.

As a proud ambassador for Arlington in regional, state and national organizations, Dr. Williams showed that, in the words of Craig Syphax “his commitment to Arlington County was complete and unequivocal.”

Never one to be satisfied, Talmadge pushed throughout his nearly 40 years in Arlington to move the County to honor its proud legacy — especially, but not limited to, African-American accomplishments — and to build bridges among communities. He pushed Arlington to invest in its future, to govern well, to constantly seek to improve, to achieve justice and fairness, and to create both opportunity and security for all of its residents with a particular emphasis on those in need and those who had faced discrimination. 

Dr. Williams’ commitment to Arlington was reflected in the range of his activities, which included his NAACP service as well as key positions as Co-Chairman of the Arlington Bicentennial Celebration Task Force; Advisory Board, Arlington County Chief of Police; Advisory Board, George Mason University School of Education; Board Member, Ballston Clarendon Partnership; and Vice President, Bluemont Civic Association. He also worked to keep alive public awareness of the central role of Freedman’s Village in Arlington’s history, and the legacy of slavery at Arlington House.

He was also a renowned educator, serving as the Dean of a college, professor of business administration, and developer and publisher of a range of educational materials that won national recognition. He pushed for students to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) long before that became a national buzzword and he mentored countless students who sought to follow in his footsteps.

It was a sign of the magnanimity of Talmadge’s spirit and his love of history that he would choose Arlington House as the location of his 2007 wedding, where he and his bride were wed wearing replicas of period pieces from the wedding of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis. This helped  raise awareness of the complete history of Arlington House and raised money for its renovation — including slave quarters.

His work late in life was to establish and find a permanent home for the Arlington Black Heritage Museum. I hope Arlingtonians will honor Dr. Williams by helping make that vision a reality.

Larry Roberts is an attorney in private practice who served as Counselor to Gov. Tim Kaine. He is a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee and Member (with Dr. Williams) of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

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