Leon Williams is the epitome of a Community Hero.
As a lifelong civic leader, he has a string of “firsts” that are staggering:
- The first Black person elected to the San Diego City Council in 1969
- The first Black person elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in 1982
- President of the California Associations of Counties in 1993 and Board member of the National Association of Counties
Williams was born in Oklahoma and came to San Diego in 1941, serving in the Army Corps of Engineers. He recounted the immediate racism he encountered on his arrival in a 2020 interview with San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Diane Bell and shared that when trying to check into the former Hotel Pickwick in downtown he was told “We don’t serve your kind,” and ended up staying at a friend’s house.
Racist discrimination continued during Williams’s tenure as San Diego City Councilman. While parked near Balboa Park reviewing the council agenda, he was approached by a police officer, gun drawn, who demanded to know what Williams was doing in that neighborhood.
In his public career of advancement and opening doors, Williams helped start the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation as well as Centre City Development Corp. and chaired the Metropolitan Transit District for 13 years. In 2020 the Board of Supervisors established the Leon L. Williams San Diego County Human Relations Commission “to promote positive human relations, respect, and the integrity of every individual regardless of gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or citizenship status.”
At the age of 98, Williams continues to live in the home he bought in San Diego in 1947, a purchase that made him the first Black homeowner in his neighborhood in defiance of a whites-only restriction. Seventy years later in 2017, that block of E street was renamed “Leon Williams Drive” in honor of his contributions to the San Diego community. Leon Williams’s life is chronicled in his memoir, Together We Can Do More: The Leon Williams Story, written by Lynne Carrier and published in 2015.