On Jan. 30, the African American Military History Museum kicked off Black History Month by introducing its new event series and honoring the late Iola Williams.
“February stands to be one of the most rewarding and culturally enriching months in Hattiesburg all year. One that fosters community in our diverse city, and it calls us to continue a positive trajectory in our community,” Mayor Toby Barker said during the ceremony.
Williams first introduced the kick-off events for Black History Month in 2010. The museum presented the 2020 series, titled “Shaping America: African American Women in the Armed Forces”, in honor of Williams. Williams died in early April 2019 at age 83.
Williams’ daughter Audrey Williams spoke about her mother during the ceremony.
“She loved her church. She loved her community, her history, her family and everyone was family to her,” she said.
A community trailblazer and political figure, Williams’ influence stretched from Hattiesburg to San Jose, California. She was the first African American elected to the Franklin-McKinley School Board in San Jose, where she continued to serve on the San Jose City Council. Upon returning to Hattiesburg in 1991, Williams served as director of recreation and community relations for the city.
Williams led the initiative to save the building from destruction and open the African American Military History Museum. The museum is dedicated to preserving and informing the public about African American contributions to the U.S. military, beginning with the Spanish War. Williams also served as the museum’s first executive director.
“Because of Iola’s hard work, dedication and vision, we are actually sitting in the largest artifact of the African American Military History Museum. This building itself is the artifact,” Richard Taylor, the executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, said.
The museum is housed inside the only remaining USO built exclusively for African American soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby during World War II. The USO club first opened its doors in 1942.
“Iola saw how things would be before we even knew we could do it. It was a privilege of mine to work with her,” Taylor said. “Iola lit a spark that is becoming the Sixth Street Museum District.”
Williams’ community revitalization extended beyond the museum. She also initiated the restoration of the Historic Eureka School. When the school opened in 1921, it was one of the only two brick high schools for African American youth.
The event concluded with Iola Williams’ favorite song, “I Was Here,” performed by Halethe Jones, Miss East Sixth Street USO 2019, as well as a video presentation.
The African American Military History Museum is located at 305 E 6th St. in Hattiesburg. Hours of operation are Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.