“Whenever I was in the presence of Dot Williams, I felt welcomed. She invited us
into her home with love and happiness. Her food was good, her conversations
were engaging and she was truly a gem in the Black community,” says Betty Banks, a lifelong Madisonian and executive director of Today Not Tomorrow, Inc. (Club TNT). “Dot loved her family and her community. She supported the work that we did and we were
appreciative. Hers was a life well-lived. She will be missed.”
Dorothy “Dot” Williams, a matriarch in the Madison community for more than five decades, passed away peacefully on the morning of Jan. 15 at the age of 89. Living a good portion of her life in the segregated Deep South, Williams has spent the last five and a half decades in Madison, where she was well-known for her kindness and generosity, along with her activism and empathy, and she made an impression on many.
“She died on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I thought about how appropriate that was. It was the day he was born and the day God took Dot,” husband Will Williams tells Madison365.
Williams says that his wife “just loved people.”
“She had her own ways; a lot of people may not have understood her, but everything that she did was out of love,” he says.
“She did a lot of things under the radar that people didn’t know. She used to cook a lot for fundraisers for MAPC [Madison Area Peace Coalition] and for Club TNT’s [annual Waterbearer] Awards Ceremony. She would do all of the food and she was a great cook. She would do anything for people,” Williams continues. “Sometimes people would pass away and even if she didn’t really know them, she would prepare food for them and their families. It was just her way.”
Gaddi Ben Dan, the senior executive producer at Club TNT and a 2018 City-County MLK Humanitarian Award winner, is very familiar with Williams’s great cooking and overall generosity and giving spirit.
“I met Dorothy “Dot” Williams for the first time at the 2009 Bayview Triangle Fest. What intrigued me about her was her straightforwardness. Her husband Will, an United States Army Veteran, was selling a DVD, of the documentary ‘The Good Soldier,'” Dan remembers. “As I purchased one from him, Dot spoke up and said, with a slight impishness, ‘There better be some money in that account!’ From that day forward we all became good friends. Gone, but will never be forgotten, I dedicate the biblical Proverbs 30:10 ‘Who can find a virtuous woman?’ to her golden memory.”
Dorothy Wiliams was originally from Hazelhurst, Mississippi. Husband Will Williams was originally from Crystal Springs, Mississippi. Both lived through the racism and segregation of the Mississippi Jim Crow era in those two small towns south of Jackson, Mississippi, before eventually moving to Madison where they would spend over five decades together.
“We grew up about 10-12 miles apart. Her aunt and my mother were friends growing up. Even though she was older than I, I fell in love with her,” Will Williams remembers. “When I first laid eyes on her I knew then and I felt then that she would be my soulmate.
“We were married in 1965. We celebrated 56 years on the 30th of December. We married four days before I left for Vietnam,” he adds.
Williams, a Vietnam vet who is famous for his anti-war and civil rights activism, is a charter member of the Clarence Kailin Chapter #25 in Madison of Veterans for Peace, a national non-profit educational and humanitarian organization dedicated to the abolition of war. He is nationally famous for being featured in the critically acclaimed documentary film, “The Good Soldier,” an engrossing documentary about the effects of war on five men who served their country. The documentary reveals how soldiers simultaneously grapple with their duty and their own humanity.
Williams is well-known in Madison for his activism. Beyond his anti-war efforts, he is outspoken against many different issues affecting civil rights. But Dot was passionate about social justice and civil rights, too.
“She wasn’t as active as I was. She didn’t speak about it a ton. But she talked about it with me all the time and supported me and everything that I did,” Williams says. “I really felt like she was the reason that I could soar because she was the wind beneath my wings. She always supported me.”
Williams describes his late wife as a “very empathetic woman.”
“I was recently reflecting back when we went out to South Dakota on the reservation and took some clothes and toys out and how it affected her emotionally just seeing the condition that Native Americans were living in,” Williams says. “When we went to Wounded Knee, it really tore her down. It really hit her hard.
“She always had those feelings for people. She was an empathetic person.”
That empathy grew from living through a great deal of personal adversity whether it be the Great Depression, World War II, or the racism and segregation of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s Deep South. Dorothy Williams was nine years older than 14-year-old Emmitt Till when he was brutally mutilated, disfigured, shot, and thrown into the river by a gang of white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. It all happened a couple of hours north of where Dorothy and Will Williams grew up in Mississippi.
“She was born in 1932. She went through a lot in her life. Her grandfather came out of slavery. She would talk a lot about some of that old history,” Will Williams remembers. “She started writing a book about all of that but when she had a stroke, she got frustrated because she couldn’t operate the computer the same way. She never really did anything to get it published. But she had laid out her life story.”
Dorothy Williams was a graduate of The Piney Woods School in 1953 where she earned her associate’s degree in arts and business administration. Following that, she had a very fulfilling career as a salon manager/beautician as well as being a mother and homemaker.
In Madison, the Williams were founders and members of The Madison Gospelaires from 1986 into the 2000s. Dorothy Williams loved singing gospel alongside her husband and the other members of the group bringing joy to those who had the pleasure of watching the group perform.
“We started that group here in Madison in 1986. We both loved the old-time Gospel music that we grew up with – the Five Blind Boys and older groups like that,” Will Williams says. “We just loved that old-time Gospel.
“One Sunday morning we are at a little church called Blessed Hope (on Madison’s near east side) on North Street and we had been going there for a while and Dot and I just started humming a song – a duet … The preacher asked us to sing it and we stood up and sang it and that’s how the group got started,” he adds. “We traveled around Chicago and different states to sing at different places. It was great.”
Beyond being a singer and a fantastic cook, Dorothy Williams was an avid card player of many different games. “Some of her favorite hobbies were also knitting and bowling. She liked to be active,” Will Williams says.
To those who would see Dorothy Williams around town, especially at south Madison events — Southside Night Out, Juneteenth, celebrations at Penn Park — she had an exuberance that was infectious.
“Dot was joy-filled and a spirit that made everyone in her presence and space welcome,” says Jeanne Erickson, director of operations and programming at Club TNT and director at Project Babies. “The love shared between she and Will was visible by all who knew them. She was the rock of their family and the community. Dot will be forever missed.”
Dorothy Williams is survived by husband Will Williams and daughter Letha King, along with four grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
“I hope that people in Madison and beyond remember her as a sweet and caring person that would go out of her way to help people,” Will Williams says.
A visitation will be held for Dorothy Williams on Saturday, Jan. 22, 1-2 p.m. at Foster Funeral Homes East, 4201 East Towne Blvd. Her funeral service will start at 2 p.m.