Pictou County is mourning the death of a dedicated community leader and former journalist who walked softly through life yet blazed a trail as she travelled.
Edna Aleta Theadora (Johnston) Williams, 94, passed away on April 4.
She was a talented journalist who was respected by the legions of people she wrote about and those she worked alongside during her time as family editor then columnist at The Evening News. She was the first African Nova Scotian to work in the province’s mainstream media and it was a job she did with pride in her Girl Friday and Chatter Corner columns. She continued to write columns for the newspaper until she was well into her 80s.
Williams started blazing a trail from an early age. Born in Halifax, she was baptized in Cornwallis Street United Baptist Church at the age of 13. She was just a teenager when she became organist and choir director there 1939-1944. A woman of incredible, unshakable faith, Williams was also a Sunday School teacher, CGIT and BYUP officer. She was also a member and president of the Halifax YWCA Comrade Club; senior council member and president, Halifax YWCA. She was the first African Nova Scotian woman to have graduated from Maritime Business College with a secretarial diploma. She was a typist with the Treasury Department (Navy) from 1944 until 1949 when she married Albert Murray Williams of New Glasgow and moved to New Glasgow on her wedding day. Together, they raised seven children: Murleta, Marty, Norma, Charla, Renny, Kerry and Julia. Murray passed away when the couple’s youngest child was barely a teenager.
Williams continued blazing a trail and forging relationships that would be strong as steel when she came to New Glasgow.
With an unparalleled talent and passion for music, she formed the Mixed Chorus of Second United Baptist Church which she directed and accompanied for several years when she first came to New Glasgow. She also directed the church’s Brotherhood Choir, beginning in 1980 and had the honour of being the only female member of the Men’s Brotherhood. She was assistant organist of the church for more than 50 years and interim organist for three years. She has also served as organist and choir director with a number of churches of different denominations throughout Pictou County and was also a member of the Pictou County Council of Churches.
She co-led the CGIT of Second United Baptist Church and was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary there since 1949.
Williams worked tirelessly yet quietly to make a difference in her community. She was a founding member of the Pictou County YM-YWCA and served on its Board of Directors. She also served on local and provincial home and school associations and is a past-president of the Pictou County Seniors Festival.
Williams was a founding member and past officer of the Pictou County Interracial Society, now non-existent; and was a member of the Board of Directors for both Pictou County Big Brothers Big Sisters and Pictou County United Way.
She has received awards from and been feted by The United Way, Black Cultural Center, Pictou County Music Festival, Second United Baptist Church, Town of New Glasgow and Canadian Bible Society, to name just a few.
Williams cast her net quietly yet purposefully in other areas of the province. She has held numerous offices throughout the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia, AUBA Women’s Institute and Black United Front of Nova Scotia.
Once her children were no longer babies, Williams returned to the workforce part time at a period in history when women — particularly African Nova Scotian women — were not seen in mainstream careers.
In a 2017 interview with The Advocate celebrating African Heritage Month Williams noted: “I was making $1 an hour and that was good money in those days.”
Williams was a founding member of the Aberdeen Hospital Palliative Care and served on the Board of the Aberdeen Palliative Care Society for many years, since its inception in 1985. Her death at the Aberdeen’s Palliative Care Unit brings her association with this society full circle.
Dr. Winston Makhan, who became acquainted with William during the formation of the Palliative Care Society said, “She had an excellent set of values of decency and tolerance that came with a warm spirit of goodwill and encouragement to anyone who needed to talk.”
He recalled, “In 1985, when I did not know how next to go forward with the notion of a palliative care service, I sent out letters to various community groups asking for a meeting to discuss end-of-life issues.” Twelve representatives came to that meeting; there were from the Cancer Society, the African-Canadian and First Nation communities, VON, Council of Churches, Women’s Institute, nurses and volunteers. That group became the Aberdeen Palliative Care Society.
“Aleta took on the task of writing articles that promoted a public awareness of the importance for such a service. Her articles helped to strengthen our awareness of each other and our common needs as neighbours and to address our concerns for thoughtful, compassionate end-of-life care.”
Makhan recalled, “As a journalist, her writing style was warm and inclusive. As people read her articles, the Aberdeen Palliative Care Society became better know and supported by the community. Thank you Aleta Williams for the many years you served to make this community a better place for all of us.”
CBC reporter Sherri Borden Colley feels blessed to have had Williams as a cousin.
Her death “is being felt all across Nova Scotia and in other parts of Canada. She touched the lives of so many through her music, words and work — both volunteer and paid.”
Borden Colley praised, “Mrs. Williams was a woman who walked, talked and carried herself with grace, poise and dignity. The impact she had on my life and the lives of other young people in New Glasgow’s African-Nova Scotian community cannot be measured.”
As one of her leaders in CGIT and as the pianist in the Baptist Youth Fellowship Choir, Borden Colley said Williams “taught us how to speak properly, how to carry and conduct ourselves, and to love and respect God, ourselves and others. She taught me proper etiquette, morals and how to be a lady. And never shied away from correcting your grammar, when necessary! She demanded that we do all things with excellence. These are lessons that I have carried into adulthood.”
Borden Colley credits Williams for her own success as a journalist through Williams’ support, mentoring and encouragement.
“While I was growing up in New Glasgow, Cousin Aleta was the only black journalist I knew or ever saw. I read her newspaper columns religiously. Through her columns … she connected with every day people who would not otherwise have their stories told or their voices heard. This is why her journalism career succeeded for over four decades.”
Sueann Musick, community editor at The News said, “Aleta was such a special person. She had a peace about her all of the time. Working with her was one of my best memories. I was a young and naïve reporter when I started working with her at The News and she showed me the importance of writing about everyone in our community because everyone had a story to tell.
“Aleta is someone that I never forget but instead will share stories and memories about for years to come.”
Another former college remembered Williams as “a real lady” who was a wonderful co-worker.
“Aleta was always the same friendly person every day,” Harold MacNeil said.
New Glasgow’s Henderson Paris said Williams has left a huge legacy due to her many contributions — including those in journalism and church work — and the respect she commanded in the community.
“She was a very special lady,” he said. “When I heard her speak, she showed strength and wisdom and gave good advice. She demanded respect through her persona. She wanted the best for everyone.”
Paris’s eldest brother, Peter Paris, also paid tribute to the many facets of Williams’ contributions.
Peter Paris is the retired professor of the Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J. and now lives in Middleton, Del.
“She lived a long life and made such an indelible mark,” he said. “She was an extraordinary woman in so many ways. She lived an exemplary life.”
He noted how Williams was widowed at a young age but was devoted to her family and church, and he saluted her work as a journalist.
“She was reporting good news stories about people who would not normally be in the news.”
Rev. Dr. Morley A. Shaw, who spent 10 years at First United Baptist Church in New Glasgow, first got to know Williams in 1984 when he first came to the county. Shortly after he arrived, Second United Baptist Church burned.
“The Board of Deacons wanted to do everything we could to accommodate the congregation so we decided to offer our sanctuary to accommodate their needs. Rev. Don Thomas, who was minister there at that time, and I preached at First United Baptist on alternating Sundays.
“That’s when I first met Aleta (who was organist at Second United Baptist Church). She was a good organist. I recall her warm, friendly demeanour and she was always smiling. Aleta loved her church, our Lord and music. She made sure her family got an education in music.”
He laughs that he spent 20 months as the pastor at Second United Baptist Church “and Aleta wore a different hat” for almost every occasion.
“Her outward appearance reflected the beauty of her character and spoke well of her. She was the epitome of the godly woman in Proverbs 31.”
The funeral for Aleta Williams will be held Saturday, April 14 at 2 p.m. in First Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In that 2017 interview with The Advocate, Aleta Williams said she always carried with her sage advice from her father: ‘Treat people as you find them and work for what you want’. Those are words she has lived by, and now she has earned her rest. As a journalist for 30 years, I am honoured to have been mentored and taught — with grace — by Aleta Williams. I am deeply humbled by her friendship and eternally grateful for the time we spent together. She has left an indelible mark in my life and in the lives of everyone she has touched.)