By Dave Schwab
Pioneering politician Leon Williams has lived in the same house on the same street in Golden Hill since 1947.
That thoroughfare, the 3000 block of E Street, has now been named Leon Williams Drive honoring the first African-American to serve on the San Diego City Council, and the only one to have served on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
On Oct. 20, District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward joined civic leaders and community members in Golden Hill for the dedication of an honorary sign officially designating Leon Williams Drive.
Williams, 95, attended the ceremony.
“It’s tremendous being here and being recognized for things that I thought everybody felt,” Williams told the gathering. “I thought everybody felt good about everybody, and everybody want to do as much as they could for everybody. I felt that way my whole life.”
Williams moved to California from the Oklahoma dustbowl as a child, and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. He was among the first African-American students to enroll at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University).
In 1947, he purchased his home on E Street in Golden Hill, becoming the first African-American in a white-only community, even when the deed explicitly required a white owner.
Reached by San Diego Uptown News after the street-naming ceremony, Ward noted that Williams is an inspiration to everyone who has followed his lead into public service.
“I know he was a role model for (supervisor) Ron Roberts,” Ward said. “It was interesting to see that Ron, who was my county supervisor, how much he looked up to Leon (even) with all of his public service. It was very touching.”
Ward said the example Williams set throughout his long and distinguished career is something every public servant can learn from.
“Leon has always been very humble, gracious and inspiring,” Ward said. “I would say Leon is probably two political generations removed from me now. But I am able to sit in my office and work because I’m learning from the politicians who, in turn, learned from Leon before them.”
Added Ward, “I certainly am aware of his (Leon’s) mark and his reputation within Golden Hill and the broader community.”
Ward pointed out many things Williams did with the county back in the 1980s “set in motion things we are now taking care of today.”
During his 37 years in civic life, Williams spurred the dynamic Downtown renewal. His achievements include the fixed-rail trolley to San Diego State University and overall better transit options, and the installation of freeway call boxes to help drivers stranded in a pre-cellphone world.
Williams also led the creation of San Diego’s Office of the Public Defender and tougher smoking regulations. He was an early advocate of programs to combat AIDS, and also pushed for robust community-oriented policing.
Williams retired in 2006 after stints on the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors and the Metropolitan Transit System’s board of directors.
Ward added there is a common “thread” heard about Williams whenever people talk about him and his political record.
“That thread is one of appreciation for his approach to civility,” Ward said. “He was somebody that treated everyone with respect. He was a role model for all of us to be able to try and emulate during difficult and intense public discussion.”
Other public servants chimed in on Williams and his impact on social justice in San Diego.
“Leon is a rare public servant, having served for 37 years in office and advocated for solutions to difficult problems well ahead of his time,” state Sen. Toni G. Atkins said. “From championing needle-exchange programs to fight AIDS, to leading on smart growth and smarter transit solutions, he has always been a true champion for the common person.”
San Diego Municipal Code Section 125.1130 allows the City Council to recognize the significant contributions by or importance of certain individuals and organizations to the city of San Diego by naming sections of public streets in their honor.
Recognition with an honorary street title is reserved for those that have performed an exemplary act or achievement of lasting interest to their community, which reflects positively on the city of San Diego as a whole.
The honorary renaming policy was adopted in December 2016, and does not change or affect official street names or addresses. Since adoption, streets have been named in honor of Kathleen Harmon, Mark Hamill and Walter Munk.
— Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.