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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Organizer Faye Williams says there's more work to be done for Gainesville's Black community

Faye Williams

Faye Williams developed an appetite for activism in the tenth grade. She has worked tirelessly to uproot the symbols of hatred in the Gainesville community and let Black people take charge.

Williams is a community organizer who has inspired many in Gainesville — her lasting impact continues to influence young activists. She helped remove the Old Joe confederate statue in 2017 and has pioneered efforts to rename J.J. Finley Elementary School. She said she plans to take on more projects to better the Gainesville community.

“Back in the day, we said ‘I'm tired of being a slave,’” she said. “We always want to overthrow the master.”

Williams said a part of her motivation to be an activist stemmed from when she lived in Washington D.C. for 13 years in her adulthood. She was inspired by Mayor Marion Barry, who served as mayor for 16 years from 1978 to 1994. Williams said Barry had an undeniable ability of understanding the experiences of the Black community. As a volunteer, Williams said she worked to improve housing and education in D.C..

“I was really happy to be a part of the movement up there, especially working with the mayor, Marion Barry,” Williams said. “He’s my hero. He’s definitely my hero.”

Williams said she has been advocating for public health and adequate resources within the Gainesville community for years, such as affordable busing to UF Health Shands Hospital in Black neighborhoods as well as electing Black women, such as Diyonne McGraw and Leanetta McNealy, to the Alachua County Public School Board.

“Anything that is social justice, she is there,” community organizer Chanae Jackson said. “She is one that is truly about civil disobedience.”

One of Williams most recent prominent projects has been updating the Alachua County community on the renaming of J.J. Finley Elementary School, named after Jesse Johnson Finley who popularized lynching practices in Alachua County. Williams was a member of the renaming committee, and on July 31 she shared  that the committee recommended the late African-American physicist and Gainesville native Carolyn Beatrice Parker as the new namesake. The name will be presented to the School Board to vote on Tuesday, according to ACPS.

She said she is not planning on stopping there with this project. Williams aims to remove all school names with ties to racism, such as Stephen Foster Elementary School.

In the mid 19th century, Foster, nicknamed the “Father of American Music” wrote 100’s of songs with racially charged messages, according to NPR. Some songs were written in a Black dialect and sung by performers in Blackface. Williams said that this is just one other name she would like to see changed.

“She is unapologetically who she is, and that is what we need,” Jackson said.

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Through her efforts to seek change, Williams has been an inspiration for younger activist groups like the Goddsville Dream Defenders, said Kiara Laurent, a 21-year-old UF criminology and sociology senior.

“She's a good representation on how to unite these people,” Laurent said. “We're fighting the same battle.”

Laurent, a member of the Goddsville Dream Defenders, said Williams' outspoken nature keeps younger generations aware and active by informing them on what’s happening in their community and offering ways they can help.

She transcends boundaries of race, age and identity to improve her community, Laurent said. Williams uses social media to engage younger activists and in-person events to bring older generations together.

“She’s a person who stands in solidarity with a lot of Black organizations or organizers here, Laurent said. “She's always encouraging people to be educated and stay aware of what's going on.”

However, not all of Williams’ battles were won with ease, she said. Williams said the removal of the Old Joe confederate statue took a tremendous effort. Erected by the Longstreet Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909, Williams said their prominence in Gainesville made the removal of the statue an uphill battle.

“They wanted it to stand on the corner for another 104 years,” Williams said. “It was my passion to get rid of Old Joe. Otherwise, it would’ve been standing for another 104 years.”

Over the course of two and a half years, Williams conducted several meetings with the county commission, organized forums with students from UF, Santa Fe and the community, participated in rallies and signed petitions to remove the statue. Through her efforts, Williams said its removal was rewarding.

“I was really, really proud that day,” Williams said. “When I walk up University Avenue now and Main Street, I do feel proud that I was one of the organizers for that.”

Williams said she’s not planning on stopping her advocacy work anytime soon. She is a member of the Alachua County Black History Task Force. The force worked to add an African American History class to the Alachua County Public School curriculum and has offered it as an elective at Eastside high school.

“She has a true sincere sense of community, and not for the accolades, but because it is her heart's mission, in order to do the work of the people,” said fellow community organizer Chanae Jackson.

When asked about running for a political position, Williams said she prefers to operate on the outskirts.

“My voice is louder on the outside. When you run for mayor or run for city commissioner, you have to be silent, and you have to make a lot of compromises,” she said. “I tend to not want to compromise.”

Williams said that voting by mail and being politically active can help create educational opportunities for Black communities.

“If you're not educated the right way, a lot of things fall into these cracks. You can't read, you can't fill out an application, a job application,” Williams said. “It's almost like you're denying our culture. That's why I'm so stuck on people voting-by-mail.”

Williams said she is in the process of developing M.A.M.A.’s club and has organized a virtual anti-racism event on Aug. 22. The facility that stands for music, art, movement and action will provide workshops and job opportunities to help combat racial injustice, according to the Goddsville Dream Defenders Facebook page.

The M.A.M.A’s Club community center still needs a physical location and is currently collecting donations. (You can click here to donate.)

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