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Woman at center of Civil Rights Movement dies at 108

Leila Williams' restaurant was not only an eatery, it became a hub of the movement.

ATLANTA — A woman whose restaurant was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement has died. 

Leila Williams' family confirmed the news to 11Alive on Thursday. The 108-year-old woman passed away on Wednesday morning, according to her godson Julius Hollis.

Williams was born on November 14, 1912, according to her family.

"Aunt Leila was 108 years old. She was born the year that the Titanic sunk; she survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918; she survived racism and the Great Depression in South Georgia...," Hollis wrote in a touching Facebook post. "Aunt Leila (migrated) to Atlanta where she worked at Busy Bee Restaurant and later would start her own restaurant in the mid-1950s near the Atlanta University Center, which would go on to become a pivotal gathering spot for Atlanta's Black Educators, Business, Political and Labor Leaders during the Civil Rights struggles."

Pivotal indeed, from 1949 until the early 90s, her cooking skills became famous in Southwest Atlanta and her small restaurant on Fair Street --  Leila's Dinette -- gained fame.

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“What really stands out in my mind in my memory is her cooking, and actually and how she reached out to so many people,” said Charlotte Webb, her goddaughter.

For more than 40 years, during the most tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movement, Leila's Dinette not only became a headquarters for college students, but also a haven for some of the most important Civil Rights leaders of our time.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Congressman John Lewis, and Reverend Joseph Lowery all dined at the restaurant. 

Rev. Earle Ifill, Williams' pastor, remembered them well.

“All of them came here," he said. "All of them have eaten here at some point or another."

"Escaping the worst days of attacks and lynching of Black folks, she would survive to host a president, mayors, congressmen, and elected officials and business leaders at her eatery," Hollis explained.

"Leila Williams was a gentle soul," her godson said. "Over the last 4 years, as we would gather for special occasions with Aunt Leila, she would often tell us not to despair, at the end of the day, she would often tell us that Jesus would set everything straight."

Williams' viewing will take place on Feb. 5, Hollis said. It's scheduled to last from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Hines Home of Funerals of West Lake Avenue in northwest Atlanta. 

Her graveside service will begin at 11 a.m. on Feb. 6. It is expected to take place at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. 

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