Willie Richardson, Salem-based Black historian and education advocated, died Jan. 25 at the age of 74.
Multiple friends described the activist and small business owner as “a force to be reckoned with” – passionate, kind and deeply impactful.
Richardson was also remembered for her fashion savvy, looking her best even when she arrived to do the hard work of assembling museum exhibits.
“She combined grit and grace,” Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, told The Skanner.
Arriving in Oregon in 1978 with her husband and three children, the South Carolina-born Richardson tirelessly researched Black history throughout the northwest.
“She devoted this time to her adopted state,” Tymchuk said. “She was persistent in making sure that story got out. But she didn’t do it in anger, she did it with a desire to tell the truth and she always had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye and a hat on her head.”
Richardson sat on the original board of the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers, now known as Oregon Black Pioneers, where she later served as president.
“Once she got started with the OBP, nothing was going to stop her,” Tymchuk said. “She was going to keep expanding their scope and influence.”
Longtime friend Gwen Carr credited Richardson with reviving the organization after it had all but gone dark.
“I think both of us were surprised to find that there was so much Oregon Black history that had not been uncovered,” Carr told The Skanner, “and so it was always interesting to find out new information about people who lived in places that we didn’t think had any history at all, like southern Oregon or eastern Oregon, and the north coast. It was like an adventure.”
Though Carr herself was more comfortable with public speaking, Richardson was “a relationship person,” she said.
“She could walk into any boardroom, up to the president of a university, into a governor’s office, and talk about the importance of learning about Oregon’s Black history, and how are we going to fund it, and how can you help me do this? That was her lane, she would call it.”
“She was very protective of the organization,” community historian and current president of Oregon Black Pioneers Kimberly Moreland told The Skanner. She regarded Richardson as a mentor.
Richardson brought that energy to school board meetings, and became the first and thus far only Black board member of Salem-Keizer Public Schools when she was elected in 1987.
“She had children in the school system, and she considered almost anybody her child,” Carr said. “She took an interest particularly in minority and Black students specifically. And so some of that comes from her southern background and how she grew up in the community – all her children were your children, like the saying ‘it takes a village.’
“She had an energy and passion for seeing that her kids were well supported – not only her biological kids, but other Black kids in Salem Keizer. And to see that they had someone advocating for them, someone who was willing to speak up and go behind closed doors and talk with people.
“She didn’t have any problem with showing up and holding people accountable.
"Not only holding ‘the system’ accountable – like the educational system, or even the educational system in colleges in teaching, in Black history – but also holding Black people accountable for what they knew and what they were willing to do for each other.”
Richardson became involved in efforts to recruit Black educators and school administrators from out of state.
“People don’t know about Oregon, or what they do know is it’s not a very welcoming state,” Carr said. “It never has been. So she had to overcome a lot of those barriers just to talk Black people into becoming interested in coming here.”
As friends and family mourn their loss, Carr recalled Richardson’s penchant for hats and the clothing store she ran for 17 years. Hers was a colorful life well lived.
“She knew who she was and she loved being Willie,” Carr said.
Currently, an exhibit in Richardson’s honor is being held at the Barn Art Center in Salem through Feb. 26. For more information on "Hattitude: Hats from the Hatboxes of Willie Richardson," visit https://salemart.org/events/hattitude-hats-from-the-hatboxes-of-willie-richardson.
Funeral services for Willie Richardson will be held Saturday, February 4 at 10:30 a.m. at Trinity Covenant Church, 5020 Liberty Rd. S, Salem, with a viewing Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Golden's Mortuary, 605 Commercial St SE, Salem.