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Looking back — Local civil rights icon says never give up

Local civil rights activist Lilian Walker sits at her kitchen table in the home she and her husband James bought in a predominately white neighborhood in 1943. With the opening of the Washington D.C. memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Walker said the work towards racial equality is never done. - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Local civil rights activist Lilian Walker sits at her kitchen table in the home she and her husband James bought in a predominately white neighborhood in 1943. With the opening of the Washington D.C. memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Walker said the work towards racial equality is never done.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

Never give up. For nearly 98 years, it’s been Lillian Walker’s motto.

“You can’t overcome anything by giving up,” she said. “And I don’t go into anything expecting to lose.”

Being African-American and living in Bremerton since the early 1940s, Walker has seen the community change and evolve from within – she was at the center of it.

In 1944, Walker and her husband helped found the Bremerton branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Despite criticism from many, they purchased a house in a predominantly white neighborhood. She was also a charter member for the YWCA in Bremerton.

If it had to do with ensuring equal rights or providing social services, she probably had a hand in helping with it. Walker said she’s always been a firm believer of treating others the way you want to be treated.

“I don’t believe in hate or the mistreatment of one person against another,” the 97-year-old said. “Whenever I saw racism, I tried to correct it.”

With the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech last Sunday, some parts of the nation — and some parts of Kitsap County — have come far since the days of King, the movement and the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

A four-acre memorial dedicated to King featuring the 30-foot high granite relief of the legendary civil rights leader called the “Stone of Hope”  recently opened to the public on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The Aug. 28 dedication ceremony was postponed due to Hurricane Irene. The memorial is situated on four acres on the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin next to the Roosevelt Memorial, according to the National Memorial Project Foundation. The cancellation came one day before the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a 21st century reminder that the totality of King’s dream has not yet been realized.

Walker thinks positively of the King Memorial but in terms of racial equality, “work is never done.”

The local civil rights pioneer was born on Oct. 2, 1913 on a 20-acre farm in rural Illinois. She and her siblings learned from a young age to work hard and helped their parents with the ploughing, planting, cooking and other household tasks.

Her father instilled in her the attitude of “if anyone else can do it, I can do it better.” And, her father’s words still resonate with her.

“Even if it’s a game of marbles, I go in as if I’m going to win,” Walker said.

She married James T. Walker in 1941 — one of his first jobs in Bremerton was as a chauffeur and she as a maid.

For a time, Walker worked as the postmaster for recently demolished Sinclair Park, the segregated housing project in Bremerton. In 1943, the couple purchased a house in Bremerton in a day when the real estate agent first took them to see houses for sale in predominantly Black neighborhoods. But, the Walkers chose otherwise.

“We weren’t going to cause any trouble,” Walker said of the home that she still lives in today with her daughter, June Newman, who helps care for her.

She recalled hostility on their move into the house on Sixth Street — sometimes people drove by pointing guns out the window, she said — but there were others who accepted them. Walker said there were neighbors who she became good friends with regardless of race and the general tensions of the time.

“She’d take care of my kids and I’d take care of hers,” Walker said of one white neighbor.

Along with those who accepted her and others who discriminated against her, there were also some who didn’t take the time to get to know her and created assumptions.

Her grandmother on her father’s side was of mixed race – the granddaughter of a Tennessee slave owner. Walker said because of her lighter skin tone, sometimes people didn’t know she was African-American.

One of Walker’s jobs she also had was as a custodian at the Bremerton Navy Yard, the name of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at the time. It was in 1941 when she started the job and she received two identification badges — one identified her as Filipino and the other as white.

“They didn’t ask me anything,” Walker said. “I didn’t need two badges. They didn’t know what race I was.”

She could have easily accepted the two badges but she spoke up and said she was African-American. Walker was never ashamed of who she was.

Newman has also had similar situations regarding race as her mother.

When Newman gave birth to her son in 1970 in Tacoma, the nurse filled out a form indicating that the newborn’s race was white. Newman’s husband was a light-skinned Black man and because of Newman’s light complexion, the nurse didn’t think to ask, she said.

“They have a lot of assumptions of what I am,” Newman said.

One of Walker’s friends, Alyce Eagans — whose late husband Loxie Eagans was the 10th president of the Bremerton NAACP and worked as an equal opportunity officer for the shipyard — said she first met Walker at a meeting for the YWCA, which opened in Bremerton in 1948 after Walker and numerous other female volunteers campaigned for its inception.

“She was a real go-getter. She wanted to make things work,” Eagans said recently.

Eagans said even for her age, Walker is very alert and talkative. She said she talks with Walker at least once a week and visits her once a week as well.

Walker said she can’t exactly pinpoint a specific action or event that is her proudest accomplishment.

“She’s extremely proud of all her accomplishments,” Newman said. “They cover a broad spectrum of civic, racial — all of it is intertwined in each step she took with them.”

Aside from her contributions with the NAACP and YWCA, she was active in the Kitsap County Democratic Party, the Carver Civic Club, the Bremerton affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and her church, Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal.

The woman has been awarded numerous awards for her contributions to the community including the 2009 Liberty Bell Award from the Kitsap County Bar Association and the YWCA’s Founder’s Award. The Washington State Legacy Project through the Office of the Secretary of State published a biography and oral history of Walker last year. The project has been publishing stories on local leaders and “ordinary” people who inspired change since 2008.

Bremerton City Council member Dianne Robinson, who is the founder of the Black Historical Society of Kitsap County, described Walker was “very outspoken.”

“She was really a fighter of civil rights,” Robinson said. “She just wanted us to have the same rights as any other person who would come to the area and wanted to sit down and eat at a restaurant.”

With Robinson’s term ending at the end of the year and plans to move to Florida, she hopes that the historical society’s board will continue to keep the historical society going.

Because her parents taught her to have an open mind and be accepting of all people, Newman said there should be more diversity teaching in the schools for students who may not be receiving that upbringing at home. Aside from Newman, Walker has a son who lives in Cincinnati raising his family and working as an epidemiologist.

Regardless of whether it was raising her children, buying a house or speaking up to a stranger about discrimination, everything in her life always reverts back to her life motto. Never give up.

“That’s why she’s living so long,” Newman said.

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