One of Athens’ most respected civil rights leaders, Virginia Walker, has died.
Walker passed away Tuesday at the age of 72.
To her four children, she was first of all a mother.
“Even though we were poor, we didn’t feel poor,” recalled Elliott Walker, her eldest son, remembering the meals she’d cook before going out to community activities she was involved in.
That involvement was sometimes in formal roles, such as the years she spent as Athens Family Connection’s empowerment project director and diversity coordinator. But the role her family remembers more is of Walker as a good neighbor helping people with their income tax returns.
“She just did it to help them out,” said Elliott Walker. “She had a love for our family, and she had a love for our community.”
“She didn’t have much formal education, but she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” said Tim Johnson, executive director of Athens’ Family Connection-Communities in Schools.
When Johnson asked Walker to get involved with the new organization in the early 1990s, she surprised him by asking right off for his organization’s budget. People talk about what their organizations do, but a budget tells you what an organization is actually doing, she told him.
Walker’s influence went far beyond Athens. The original idea for Family Connection was to bring together various agencies to help improve child and family well-being. But at a state meeting, Walker asked why the families weren’t part of the discussion at the top, a message she also posed to national leaders of the organization.
She was also a leader after Athens police shot and killed Edward Wright, a mentally disturbed man who had been running naked in an east Athens neighborhood. After Edwards’ 1995 death, Athens police adopted a much more community-oriented policing approach.
People called her one of the “Four Matrons,” recalled Johnson. That group included Miriam Moore, Jessie Barnett, Evelyn Neely and Walker, now all gone.
It was through family that she became an advocate for African Americans and poor people in Athens, she once told Johnson.
When her oldest son, now a math teacher, was beginning his own education, he was enrolled in Head Start, which asked parents to be advocates for their children, Johnson recalled Walker telling him. But as she took on that role as her son’s advocate, it expanded to being an advocate for other children and other families.
She played an important role in establishing organizations that have become accepted and important institutions — the Athens Neighborhood Health Center, Family Counseling and others. She was instrumental in establishing the Miriam Moore Community Center and in getting Athens-Clarke leaders (and voters) to approve and build a public park in east Athens
She also was one of the leaders who pushed for a bridge across the North Oconee River to the black neighborhoods of east Athens, or as she called it, “East of Athens,” in a time when basic government services such as sewer lines often didn’t make it over into black neighborhoods.
Other Athens leaders also paid tribute to Walker, who suffered a series of strokes beginning in 2005.
Former Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Harry Sims last year proposed that an east Athens park be named for Walker, and said Thursday he hopes the commission will follow through on that.
“She worked for other people more than herself,” said Sims, recalling especially how she’d collect food from a food bank for people who needed it.
When Walker became involved in something, she mastered it, Sims said.
“Whatever she dug into, it was thorough,” he said. “She was very accurate in what she did. She was totally committed whatever she put her mind to.”
“Virginia Walker was a very valuable contributor to a major time in Athens,” said former Athens-Clarke County Mayor Gwen O’Looney, who recalled Walker’s leadership following Wright’s death. “Virginia Walker was there when you needed her.”
“Virginia Walker was an Athens icon who gave completely in hopes that all Athens families had equal access to the opportunities of life,” wrote Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, superintendent of Foothills Education Charter High School, in an email.
Funeral services, handled by Winfrey Mutual Funeral Home, are set for Aug. 11 at 1 p.m. in Springhill Baptist Church.
The family is receiving visitors at the family home at 132 Water Oak St., Athens.