TRENTON — Organizers of the city’s first Trenton African-American Pride Festival said Friday that they needed no extra incentive, but the death of a supporter and committee member Ernie Williams added energy.
“I know everybody involved has given their heart and soul to get this event off the ground,” said Trentonian writer L.A. Parker, who founded today’s event. “We have worked real hard and endured the growing pains connected with any first-time event. But here we are, just hours away.
“The passing of Mr. Williams hurt us to our core because he provided us with inspiration. Ernie is our connector to a the past when most African-Americans had pride in every aspect of their lives. Trust me, Ernie’s death has supercharged our committee. He is forever connected to this event.”
Williams, 77, passed away Wednesday night following a brief but lethal bout with brain and lung cancer.
Despite his serious condition, Williams managed to attend Trenton African American Pride Festival meetings, sometimes even after chemotherapy treatments.
“He never let on how bad he was. Ernie just kept getting up each morning and doing his thing,” said his daughter, Cheryl Griffith.
The city’s first black police chief immediately signed on with the festival, saying he supported any effort to restore pride to a city suffering serious social and economic deterioration.
“It’s so bittersweet,” said Yolanda Robinson, the festival spokesperson. “I feel like crying and smiling at the same time because Mr. Williams is gone. But we got to share this event with him. We had his support and that meant so much.”
Williams joined Trenton’s police force in 1963 then used his hard work ethic to rise through the ranks. In 1990, Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer selected Williams as his public safety director.
Williams retired in 1999 but returned 11 years later to lead city officers as a favor to newly inaugurated Mayor Tony Mack. When their deal soured, and it soured bigtime, Williams walked away after only several months on the job.
Despite his resignation, Trenton’s first black police chief maintained his high level of both street cred and within police rank and file.
Williams built a legend as being a cop’s cop.
“It’s been rather somber around headquarters, but just about every officer here has special memories of Chief Williams,” one city cop said. “Chief Williams meant different things to different people. I’m sure that every individual person has a different memory about him — all good.”
Andrew Bobbitt, president of the “Never Give Up” program, called Williams a champion, teacher and supporter.
“He was a mentor to me. When I first met him, he used to tell me to be a positive person and stay out of trouble. Ernie was the first person I ran to when I needed advice. I’m amazed each time I read his biography. This guy was the first in so many things,” Bobbitt said.
“Ernie Williams was straight by the book. He had integrity and that one characteristic gained him some city enemies. But for most, his honesty made him special because (Williams) spoke truth.”
“Never Give Up” presented Williams with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” earlier this year.
Trenton African-American Pride Festival logistics co-chair Karriem Beyah laughed about his initial meeting with Williams.
“I first met Ernie at the YMCA. We were both at the sit-up bench because Ernie was a situp fanatic. We played handball together, too,” Beyah said. “To have him on our festival committee? Man, that was a great inspiration. Still is a great inspiration.”