DeCharlene Williams had owned a Central Area boutique since the '60s and founded the Seattle neighborhood's chamber of commerce. "My mom was very creative," her daughter said. "Flashy stuff, sequins, colorful — that was her. Always the life of the party."
DeCharlene Williams, the owner of a Central Area boutique who founded the Seattle neighborhood’s chamber of commerce and was a pillar in Seattle’s black community, died Sunday morning at age 75.
“DeCharlene was a trailblazer in our community who gave and gave and gave tirelessly,” said her close friend, Patricia Valentine-Jones. “She was fearless, a super-courageous woman.”
Ms. Williams, a no-nonsense personality who friends said never shied from speaking her mind, built her business as a single black woman facing numerous obstacles. Then, she built community and pursued activism to help others in similar situations.
Ms. Williams came to Seattle in 1958 with her first husband, who worked at Boeing. She took technical-school courses and later attended Seattle’s Edwards Beauty School.
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After divorcing, Ms. Williams worked multiple jobs, saving money to buy a building for her salon business. It was the 1960s. “That was during a time when they did not sell to single women,” said Ms. Williams’ daughter, Rita Green. But, “she was able to convince the loan person to put C Williams on the paperwork. That way they couldn’t tell she was a woman.”
It worked. After much difficulty, she got a loan. She later bought a storefront on East Madison street that has served as her salon and clothing boutique for the half-century since.
Ms. Williams told The Seattle Times in 2005 that people were skeptical at first of her ability to operate a business because of her race and because she was a woman.
“I put my creative ability to work and opened up a cute little shop and it was purple and gold — purple, gold and white,” she said. “I didn’t have money to advertise, so I would go around and knock on the neighbors’ doors and let them know I was there and opened a shop and come get their hair done, support the shop in their community.”
The clothing she sold was “fabulous, elegant and over the top,” Valentine-Jones said, and reflected her personality. “That’s who she was all the time.”
“My mom was very creative,” Green said, and designed many of the hats she sold. “Flashy stuff, sequins, colorful — that was her. Always the life of the party.”
Her boutique’s wares lined the pews of Seattle church goers.
“The older African-American ladies like to dress up when they go to church — her shop was the place to go,” said Jerusha Jones, a friend. “It was just like the barber shop with the men — everybody’s chatting and talking about different things.”
Ms. Williams founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce in 1983. With the organization, she fostered community, sought to lift up women and organized events, Green said. Her business cards came with a motto: “Hands that touch build unity.”
For decades, Ms. Williams served on the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration committee and organized annual celebrations of Juneteenth, which commemorates the date in 1865 when slaves were freed in Texas.
Like a large portion of black Seattleites, “she was a descendant of slaves in Texas,” Metropolitan King County Council member Larry Gossett said in an interview on Monday. “She became enthralled in Juneteenth.”
She brought the celebration to Seattle’s Pratt Park.
“She made sure everyone knew about and celebrated it,” Gossett said. “She had attitude. She had persistence. She had drive and she always provided an example for others to follow. It made her business, the chamber, her Juneteenth.”
Ms. Williams ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1993 and for a city- council position in 1997. She also wrote a two-volume history of the Central Area during that decade.
In recent years, Ms. Williams watched with dismay as gentrification gobbled up portions of the Central Area. Apartment buildings and a grocery stores sprouted up near her shop. Many black-owned businesses left the area, Gossett said. Ms. Williams refused to sell.
“She said, ‘I won’t sell it unless they gave me 8 million dollars,'” Green said, setting a hard bargain for her modest storefront.
“The things she had to go through to get that building, she was not going to let them come in and take it away,” Valentine-Jones said. Green has no plans to sell, either, and expects to keep the building, and the business, in the family.
As it often does, Ms. Williams’ cancer worked cruelly and much too swift. In recent years, she had hoped to start a beauty school. She felt she had more to give.
“She said she wasn’t ready to go yet — that there was still a lot of work to be done in the community,” Green said. “She wants people to start stepping up and carrying that torch.”
Ms. Williams is survived by her daughter, Green; her son, Anthony Williams, and seven grandchildren.