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Novella S. Williams, 87, prominent West Philadelphia activist

She founded numerous civic betterment organizations.

Novella S. Williams.
Novella S. Williams.Read more

NOVELLA WILLIAMS had a clear memory of the time when she was a child living in North Carolina and the men in the "funny clothes" came to take her father away.

He was wrongly accused of setting a barn on fire, and the family had to flee the outraged townspeople who came to the house.

Her father, known as "Old Black Charlie," was taken to the jailhouse in Raleigh. It was only when the true culprit confessed to carelessly tossing a lit cigarette into the barn that her father was released. But the impact of that frightening event left a powerful impression on the family, especially little Novella.

"Mom put the children in a wagon, and I said to Mom, 'I'm a little girl now, but I will make it my life's work to bring about peace and harmony,' " she said.

Novella was true to her childhood promise. She devoted her life to righting wrongs and fighting to bring peace and harmony to her adopted city of Philadelphia.

Novella S. Williams died of heart failure March 20 at age 87.

Her struggle for civic improvement encompassed nearly every aspect of urban life - civil rights, politics, health, education, drug addiction, recreation, housing, economic development and law-enforcement, with special emphasis on the African-American experience.

In August 2013, Novella got to experience one final moment in the civil-rights struggle. She was 86 and unable to walk, but she wanted to be in the nation's capital for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

She had been among the 250,000 who attended the original march and had heard the stirring words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Her daughter, the Rev. Pamela K. Williams, also a Philadelphia community activist, pushed her mother in a wheelchair through the throngs heading for the National Mall and the usual rousing speeches.

Pam joked that she also had been at the original march - in her mother's womb. "She was pregnant with me at the last march," Pam said.

Novella had related her childhood memory as one of the 40 prominent local women rounded up by the Inquirer in March 1997 to talk about defining moments in their lives.

Mayor Nutter issued a statement praising Novella as "a strong woman and a great leader in our city. She was opinionated, focused, and forceful. If she believed in a cause, she'd knock down a wall to make something happen."

Although Novella was harsh in her criticism of the city administration at the time of the MOVE debacle in May 1985, when W. Wilson Goode Sr. was mayor, Goode said in an email that Novella was a "fearless fighter for the poor and those who were marginalized. Few have had the impact she did. She is a Philadelphia treasure."

Novella was present on May 13, 1985, when police dropped a bomb on MOVE's Osage Avenue headquarters, killing 11 people, including seven children.

She later declared, "I was a witness to murder!"

Novella was a longtime friend and supporter of the late Frank Rizzo, police commissioner and mayor. "Novella Williams," Rizzo once said, "there's a lady that's worked her you-know-what off for me. I respect her so much."

Novella was founder and president of Citizens for Progress, which she ran for five decades with the goals of affirmative action in the public schools and economic improvement for all, especially in the African-American community.

She was a member of the Police Advisory Commission, which heard complaints against police. She organized the Black Women's Crusade Against Violence, Crime and Corruption and was a member of the Urban Affairs Coalition, just two of the many civic-action groups she either founded or joined.

President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Minority Business Resource Center Advisory Board, and she appeared before the United Nations as a nongovernmental organization representative.

In 1982, she ran in the May primary as a candidate for the state Senate. She won a hearty endorsement from the Inquirer for being "at the forefront of good causes for decades." She got 3,047 votes. Hardy Williams won the primary.

Novella's daughter Kim Denise Williams died of cancer in October 1998 at age 40. In her memory, Novella founded the Kim Denise Williams Health and Education Foundation.

Novella was born in Raleigh, N.C., as Novella Stewart, and moved to Philadelphia with her husband, Thomas Pierce Williams, in 1948. He died March 30, 2006, at age 81.

Besides her daughter Pamela, she is survived by a son, Thomas, and another daughter, Michelle Murphy.

Services: 10 a.m. Monday at White Rock Baptist Church, 5240 Chestnut St. Friends may call at 5 p.m. Sunday and at 8 a.m. Monday at the church.

Donations may be made to the Kim Denise Williams Health and Education Foundation, Box 28788, Philadelphia, 19151.