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Legacy of a Legend Luncheon honors Willie Dell, Allix James and Wyatt Walker
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Legacy of a Legend Luncheon honors Willie Dell, Allix James and Wyatt Walker

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More than 80 people gathered Saturday afternoon at Virginia Union University to honor the legacies of the first African-American city councilwoman, a former VUU president, and a local civil rights icon who died last week.

Willie Jones Dell represented the North Side 3rd District on the council from 1973 to 1982. The Rocky Mount, N.C., native was born to a mother living on welfare. As a child, she wanted to be social worker. She went on to be a part of the first majority black council in Richmond history.

She thanked those in attendance at the Claude G. Perkins Living and Learning Commons on campus for honoring her.

“I just wanted to be a social worker, but God had other plans. I had no idea about a city council,” Dell said. “God says, ‘I know the plans I have for you.’”

As a newcomer to the council, no office space in City Hall was made available for Dell to meet with her constituents. Rather than accept the slight, she made a plan, telling her husband, the Rev. Nathan Dell, to load up her car with a folding table and chairs, he told those in attendance Saturday.

“She headed for downtown, set that card table up in the lobby of City Hall and announced ‘Willie Dell is in business,’” Nathan Dell said.

Close friends and family of Dell shared tributes, speaking of her time on the council, advocacy in Richmond and mission work in Haiti, where she has traveled each year for the past three decades.

Chris Hilbert, the council president and current 3rd District representative, thanked Dell for setting an example for other elected officials who have followed in her footsteps.

“I certainly feel like I’m standing on your shoulders, Mrs. Dell,” Hilbert said.

Allix James also was honored for his work.

James, a posthumous honoree, was at the university for half a century. A graduate of VUU, he went on to serve on the faculty as an administrator and as president of the college from 1970 to 1979. He was integral in helping the VUU School of Theology attain full accreditation.

James was a founding member of the Richmond Renaissance, a precursor to what is now Venture Richmond, which built the partnership between city government and its business community. He was also the first African-American to serve as president of the Virginia Board of Education and as chairman of the Richmond Planning Commission.

He was 92 when he died in September 2015.

“Dr. James certainly blazed a trail and a legacy for all of us to follow,” said Ryan Bell, director of the Dr. Wyatt T. Walker Educational Foundation, which hosted the event in partnership with the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.

At the end of the luncheon, those in attendance observed a moment of silence for the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, the civil rights icon who died last week at the age of 88.

Walker’s work included stints as head of the Petersburg chapter of the NAACP and as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1960 to 1964.

Walker was a trusted confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., helping organize marches and protests, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Proceeds raised at the event will fund scholarships for high school students.

“Education was very much paramount in the life of Dr. Walker,” Bell said.

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

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