This article is extracted from an essay that coincides with our 2023 exhibit Inspiring Equal Participation: Windsor Afro American Civic Association. The essay details the history of WAACA from start to finish, as told by former members and surviving documents, and is the culmination of over two years of research. You can view the essay, entitled “A Retrospective Analysis of the Windsor Afro American Civic Association”.
Willie Graham receiving her diploma in human services from New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University), 1984. All photos gifts of Kimberley Graham.
Some may recognize Willie Graham as the founder of the Windsor Afro American Civic Association, a community service-based organization dedicated to serving Windsor’s Black residents. However, Willie’s influence extended beyond the lines of Windsor, and her legacy of activism throughout the Greater Hartford area made a real difference in the lives of countless people.
Willie Willis was born in Washington, Georgia, to Luther Willis Sr. and Rosie Belle Willis in 1927. As one of nine children, Willie was constantly surrounded by family. In the 1940s, she and her family relocated to New Britain, CT, after her father found employment at a brickyard. She later graduated from New Britain High School and went on to work for the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles. This is where Willie met her husband, Albert Graham, and they eventually settled in Windsor together. It did not take very long for Willie to become involved in the town and in the Hartford region.
In an oral history interview with us, Willie Graham’s daughter Kimberly Graham emphasized her mother’s dedication to community service:
“[My] mom was very active here in the town of Windsor. She was a notary as well as a justice of the peace. […] She was very active in an organization called the Makalia Court Daughters of Isis, which I believe is still in existence, and they did a lot of charitable events. She was active in her church. We were baptized and grew up in the Metropolitan AME Zion Church in Hartford.”
Willie Graham’s community involvement did not stop there. In fact, she was involved with more than a dozen organizations throughout Connecticut, including the Windsor Black Democratic Club, the Hartford Chapter of the NAACP, and several church groups. She also became a volunteer coordinator for Senator Christopher J. Dodd during his 1980 senatorial campaign. To honor Willie’s hard work, Senator Dodd granted her the Best Volunteer Coordinator in the United States Award. The two developed a very close friendship over the years, and Willie’s positive contributions persuaded Senator Dodd to offer her a position as a full-time assistant and community liaison.
“She was very much a people person,” stated Kristen Davis, Willie Graham’s youngest daughter. “She knew how to bring people together. She knew how to lead people and how to motivate. So she was very, very popular as his volunteer coordinator and the volunteers loved her. […] Most of them made no secret in telling Senator Dodd and/or his staff that they were there because of Willie and that they would do anything to support him as long as she was going to be there leading the ship.”
Willie Graham and Senator Chris Dodd, 1980s.
Willie Graham established the Windsor Afro American Civic Association in 1982 to tackle the issues faced by Windsor’s Black community. Along with low civic and social engagement among the town’s Black residents, the Windsor school system also lacked the resources needed to support students of color.
“At the time, I had four children growing up and I found that you just didn’t get to know your minority neighbors unless you were involved in the schools,” Willie Graham told the Hartford Courant in 1987. “We also wanted some means for our kids to know one another – for our kids to get some scholarships.”
To address this, WAACA began providing financial support for high school students seeking a college education. WAACA also encouraged Windsor’s Black residents to become familiar with one another and to participate in civic activities and town politics.
In May of 1992, WAACA celebrated their 10-year anniversary by hosting an event that honored Willie Graham as the founder. Gayle King served as the mistress of ceremonies. Senator Dodd, who also attended, reflected on WAACA’s achievements and on Willie Graham in a letter addressed to WAACA for the 10th anniversary:
“WAACA can be proud of the wide recognition it has gained due to its constant support for high school and college students seeking to continue their education, for civic organizations promoting cultural programs, and for its sponsorship of much-needed educational workshops. […] I am honored and delighted to participate in this special celebration recognizing Willie’s dedication to the Windsor community and the State of Connecticut. […] This is a well-deserved and fitting tribute to a woman who has tirelessly given of her time and talents.”
Stanley Cicero presenting a plaque to Willie Graham at WAACA’s 10th anniversary celebration, May 10, 1992.
Sadly, only six months after this celebration, Willie Graham passed away at the age of 64. To this day, she is remembered as a compassionate individual with a strong commitment to achieving equality through community service. “We’re still being told of how our mom touched different people in different ways that we never had a clue of,” said Albert Graham Jr. when asked about his mother’s legacy. “It blows me away, and I’m honored to be Willie Graham and Al Graham’s son.”
By Sulema DePeyster, Community History Specialist, 2023