Known to the locals of Grambling as the community’s historian with a camera by her side, Thelma Smith Washington Williams was beyond ecstatic Saturday when she walked into Grambling’s Community Center for a surprise birthday party.
“That was a total shock! When I walked through the doors I almost fainted,” said Williams. “I’m not the fainting type, but I had got close.”
Being escorted by former Grambling State President Steve Favors, Williams was under the impression that she was going to a Martin Luther King Jr. program. What she didn’t know is that family, friends and community planned to give her a surprise celebration for her 90th birthday.
The Charleston, W.Va., native said that if it weren’t for Dr. Favors, she would have fallen on the floor. When Williams saw her daughter, Alyson, sitting at table, she realized that the “program” was for her.
“That’s when I had gotten light-headed,” she said.
Williams then couldn’t believe that childhood friend from West Virginia, Jean Sawyer Scott, came to her birthday celebration.
“She always treated me like family,” said Marianne Stevens-Leclerc. “She was one of my favorite teachers while documenting our lives with a camera and a smile.”
The room was filled with pictures of Williams throughout her life, including her life as a dancer and teacher. At the beginning of the celebration, Williams’ oldest daughter Carla Hines performed an elegant dance routine to a special song. As her daughter was dancing, Williams stood up, smiled, and started singing the lyrics to the song that was written by her brother.
Williams comes from an artistic family. She and daughter Carla Hines and granddaughter Zara Hines are dancers. Her brother, the late Dr. Valerian E. Smith of Baton Rouge, besides being a dentist, was a composer and writer. The Baton Rouge side of the family also includes actress Lynn Whitfield.
Throughout the celebration, former students, friends and family spoke highly of Williams.
“Since I’ve been mayor, Mrs. Williams has called me to tell me ‘Now sugar, I’m just calling to tell you that you were slouching in your seat,’” said Edward Jones, mayor of Grambling.
Many former students of Williams can all say one thing, that she has touched them and helped them remember the important things in life and their culture.
“Every time that I go to an event where the Negro National Anthem is being sung, I always think of (Williams),” said state Sen. Rick Gallot. “I can stand there and I can sing without having to hold a program.”
The audience then started to clap in agreement with Gallot. He continued by saying how Williams’ efforts allowed her former students to “stand proudly” and represent her from her teachings. He then presented her a plaque signed by the Louisiana Senate to celebrate her 90th birthday.
Other special guests who came to the celebration were state Rep. Patrick Jefferson, James Bradford, the mayor of Jonesboro, and Jamie Mayo, the mayor of Monroe. Another surprise was when Mayo presented Williams with a proclamation that gave Williams her own day in Monroe.
Williams was presented with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol from former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. A birthday greeting was sent by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. U.S. Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina and former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana sent notes as well.
The predominant purple color in the decorations and the presence of GSU members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. brought attention to the fact that she has long been considered “Mother Omega.” Her late son, William C. “Billy” Washington, pledged at GSU, and Omegas pervade throughout her immediate family. Dr. Dennis E. Smith, her father, and her brother Valerian pledged Omega at Howard University, while grandson Andrew Azodeh pledged at GSU.
The surprise party was organized by her daughters: Carla Hines of Philadelphia, Alyson Azodeh of Temple Hills, Md., and Alicia Williams of Washington, D.C. Goddaughter Dr. Suzanne Mynette Mayo Theus of Marshall, Texas, also played her part. Dr. Reginald Owens, who considers Williams his “second mother,” also helped.
A website was created, www.thanksmrswilliams.com, for people to RSVP and send messages. It will remain active for those who want to send messages and see pictures from the event.
Williams’ grandsons David Azodeh and Andrew Azodeh, along with great-grandson Cameron, sent video messages to her. Williams’ great-grandson, Andrew Jr., 2, was in attendance.
Williams, who is frequently called Grambling’s “unofficial historian” because of her and her camera’s presence at most noted events, is known for many things. She taught at then Grambling College and Grambling High for more than 30 years as a health and physical education and dance instructor, and choreographed many campus and community balls, pageants and coronations. She was the first recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Freedom Award.
She is a member of New Rocky Valley Baptist Church in Grambling and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.