The civil rights activist who founded a community center and Black newspaper in Spokane was aboard the plane that crashed Sunday afternoon in the Puget Sound.
The U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that Sandy Williams, the force behind the Carl Maxey Center in Spokane and the publisher of the Black Lens, was a passenger on the plane, said Rick Williams, Sandy Williams’ brother. The Coast Guard determined Monday morning that no one could have survived the crash.
“This is a loss to the whole community, not just the Black community,” said Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who serves as the president of the Carl Maxey Center board. “A light so bright has been extinguished.”
Rick Williams said that his sister was on her way home from vacationing in the San Juan Islands. She was with her partner, Patricia Hicks. The family spoke to her by phone just before she boarded the plane, he said.
Her family had planned to celebrate her 61st birthday next week.
Sandy Williams became a prominent leader in Spokane not just with her ideas, but her will to bring them to fruition.
She raised the money, wrote the articles, completed the paperwork, performed a lot of the labor and did whatever else was needed to open, sustain and grow the Black Lens and the Carl Maxey Center.
“She said she was going to do it. She did it, and she never offered any excuses,” Wilkerson said. “She was unapologetic about that — about trying to uplift the Black community.”
Rick Williams said she was a passionate and honest voice of integrity.
“Her voice will be missed, I think even by those who hated to see her walk into the meeting,” Rick Williams said.
When she began work to launch the Black Lens, Williams planned to focus on positive stories highlighting Spokane’s African American community, she said in a 2020 interview with The Spokesman-Review. But that changed after she read a report about Spokane police stopping people of color more frequently than white people. So she shifted the focus to also tackle important topics facing the Black community. For instance, the newspaper’s comprehensive election issues got responses from numerous candidates on questions focused on African American topics.
“We, meaning Spokane, have a real difficult time discussing difficult things,” Williams said in a 2019 interview when she was named one of The S-R’s Inland Northwest Women of the Year. “I think that’s playing out right now in local politics, and we just want to bury it underground. That makes us more comfortable than just sort of putting it out there.”
She was also inspired to pursue the creation of the Black Lens by her father, Thomas Williams, who was a longtime ROTC instructor at Gonzaga University, Rick Williams said.
Rick Williams said she spent two days delivering each issue across the city and in Spokane Valley. It was one of her favorite parts of the job.
“It was really a way for her to keep her ear to the community,” he said.
Inspired by the NATIVE Project, a community center focused on Native people in Spokane, Williams decided to pursue the opening of the community center focused on the Black community. She chose to name it after civil rights leader Carl Maxey, Spokane’s first African American attorney.
She raised $375,000 to buy an old automotive shop and lot at 3114 E. Fifth Ave. in 2018. The center opened earlier this year — though the organization began work during the pandemic to help members of the Black community attain rental assistance.
The center promotes economic development, education and cultural enrichment in the Black community, as well as racial equity and justice.
“It is more than a building,” Wilkerson said. “It is a place where people gather and meet.”
When Broadway’s “Hamilton” performed in Spokane in May, the Carl Maxey Center organized an effort to bring 200 people to the show, mostly high school and college students. The center also hosted a question-and-answer session with several of the actors to help inspire and advise young artists.
Curtis Hampton, a Carl Maxey Center board member, remembers first seeing the century-old automotive shop Williams envisioned as a community center, and struggling to see how it could be transformed.
“Everything about that was wrong. I thought, ‘Why don’t we pick another building?’ ” he said. “Looking back at it, she was right.”
Hampton, who has been close with the Williams family since in the mid-1970s, said her vision was right because the location acts as a centerpiece of a business district that is highlighting culture and boosting the Black community.
Williams’ father was in the Army, and the family moved frequently until they ended up in Cheney when Sandy Williams was in the seventh grade.
Not long after she arrived, Williams’ activism led to change.
“Fairness was really important to me, and when I was in junior high school, girls weren’t allowed to take shop,” Williams told The Spokesman-Review in 2019. “They could take home economics, and I didn’t want to take home economics. I wanted to take shop.”
With encouragement from her English teacher, Williams wrote an essay that persuaded the school to change the rules.
“A 12-year-old kid who discovers that she could take an action and you can change something, I think is a big thing,” Williams said.
She graduated from Cheney High School in 1979 and earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in psychology and a master’s at the University of Southern California film school, where she studied screenwriting.
Rick Williams remembered that soon after graduating WSU, Sandy Williams decided to move to Colorado though she had no job waiting for her.
“She was passionate about following her dream, seeing how it went and taking that chance,” he said.
Sometimes things worked out, and sometimes they didn’t go as planned. But she kept pursuing dreams, he said.
“She got into her 50s and found this community that solidified everything she had been looking for,” Rick Williams said.
Besides her work leading the Black Lens and the Carl Maxey Center, Williams was active in many other civil rights issues. She was a former member of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs and a former interim executive director at the Odyssey Youth Center, which serves LGBTQ youths. She also helped establish a Pride Center at Eastern Washington University.
In the early 1990s she represented the Spokane office for the People of Color Against AIDS Network, a Seattle nonprofit. In 2017 she told The Spokesman-Review that she went home-to-home speaking with Black people, many of whom avoided seeking care because they thought of AIDS as a gay white man’s disease.
Dawn Spellman became close friends with Williams when Spellman worked in an HIV program for Spokane County. She said part of Williams’ drive was inspired by “standing on the shoulders” of her mother, father, grandparents and daughter.
“Sandy never forgot where she came from,” Spellman said.
Kiantha Duncan, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said she used to joke with Williams, calling her “our Black mayor.”
She said Williams was hypervigilant, and deeply committed to creating Black wealth and boosting educational opportunities in the Black community.
“One of the things she would say to me and to others is ‘We will not be ignored and we will not just move forward with the same ol’, same ol’. It’s time for change.’ “
Wilkerson said she first met Williams when Williams as working for the AIDS nonprofit and came to respect her as a visionary leader.
She said Williams had “an infectious laugh” but a quiet personality.
“She liked to be in the background. She wouldn’t speak up much,” Wilkerson said. “But when she did, she had something to say that changed the conversation or changed the outcome.”
Wilkerson remembered attending a black-tie event with Williams.
“She showed up in a red and black flannel shirt,” Wilkerson said. “She was so comfortable in herself she would show up any way she wanted to.”
Rick Williams said his sister was a loving mother and daughter. She lived with her mom, Wilhelmenia Williams, in Spokane Valley. She and her daughter, Renika Williams of Brooklyn, New York, sky-dived last year to celebrate Williams’ 60th birthday. And she recently vacationed with her daughter in Alaska.
He also wants the community to know that Williams had a light side and sense of humor.
She was a passionate Gonzaga basketball fan who yelled at the TV during games wearing a giant foam hand.
Just before she left for her vacation, Williams watched with her brother and mom one of Serena Williams’ last tennis matches on TV.
“She couldn’t sit down in her chair. She was trying to will Serena to the finish line,” Rick Williams said.
Wilkerson and Hampton pledged that the Carl Maxey Center will remain strong.
“All of us are on the same page,” Hampton said. “We will continue to pursue her dream and she will guide us from heaven.”