Mike Williams sighed and shook his head as he looked at the plaque inside Lawton Street Community Center on Friday afternoon.
Williams grew up three blocks from the building, now a Ward 4 staple and gathering place for West Akron residents, which at the time was a YMCA. One of his fondest childhood memories was learning to ride his red bicycle down the street after he first took his training wheels off — his father in tow as he tumbled into the bushes.
When he joined Akron City Council as the Ward 4 representative, he worked with the city to purchase the then-vacant building at 1225 Lawton St. and transformed the space into a community center in 1996: a feat he calls the “highlight of my entire political career.”
“My family was a product of this community,” he said. “We care so deeply about this place, which is why I wanted to serve the residents here. My father’s legacy is 88 years of service.”
He and other Ward 4 residents were hoping to memorialize that legacy by renaming the building after his father, Judge James R. Williams, who died in 2020. But now, the community center is the subject of a heated debate within City Council after the proposal from council members Russ Neal, Linda Omobien and Tara Mosley that would urge Mayor Dan Horrigan to change the name.
All council members said they held a deep respect for Williams and could not deny his impact on the city: He served as an Akron Municipal Court judge and Akron city councilman, founded a nonprofit development corporation to provide low-income housing for Akron residents, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and went on become Summit County’s first Black Common Pleas Court judge.
But when it came to renaming the community center, the council’s unity fractured, some lobbing attacks at others for “playing politics” over the matter.
At the center of it all is Williams and his family, who said the debate has not only caused “deep sadness,” but disrespected his father’s memory and the residents in Ward 4.
Concern over historical context, setting precedent and more
The resolution, which itself would not change the name but rather “urge” Horrigan to do so, was first discussed last Monday following the passage of legislation that renamed Highland Triangle Park after Rich Swirsky, the former Ward 1 councilman who died in 2021.
Ward 9’s Mike Freeman suggested pushing the Lawton Street discussion to the following week so “Rich could have his day, and Judge Williams could have his.”
Several council members, including sponsors of the bill, were unhappy with that decision.
When Monday afternoon’s rules committee meeting — where members vote to either recommend the legislation for passage or submit an adverse report to the rest of council — rolled around, some council members began expressing concern over the resolution.
“I think there’s no question that the honorable Judge Williams has made significant contributions to the city and the city has recognized those contributions,” said council President and Ward 3 Councilwoman Margo Sommerville. “The one thing to kind of think about … We get calls from others; families who want to memorialize their loved ones that have done great things in Akron. Just the challenge that there’s not enough real estate to do all of those things, so just something to keep in mind.”
Jeff Fusco, council vice president and at-large councilman, said he would be voting no because the city “has and will continue” to honor James Williams, citing Akron’s $600,000 contribution in 2012 to rehabilitate James R. Williams Tower, a 148-unit senior citizens apartment complex.
“The city has recognized and has celebrated the accomplishments of the judge, and we did that while he was living,” Sommerville told the Beacon Journal. “His name will forever be cemented on Williams towers.”
Freeman, who also serves on council’s leadership as president pro tempore, said he was hesitant to rename Lawton Street Community Center without more information about who “Lawton” was — an answer that Neal later presented in council’s 7 p.m. meeting after discussions with the Summit County Historical Society.
“We want to make sure we’re not discrediting anyone’s name in the past,” Freeman said.
According to documents from the historical society, Lawton Street was named after E.A. Lawton, a former superintendent of the Akron Water Works Co. and Ward 5 councilman who served in the late 1800s. The community center, like many others in Akron, was named after the road it was built on. Neal argued that the building itself was not named after the individual, but rather the street, so it would not encroach on Lawton’s memory.
Additionally, he and Mosley said that when other legislation passed through council to rename streets or buildings previously, the measures were not met with similar questions or contention.
The committee voted 3-2 to submit an adverse report to council, where the discussion continued to devolve later that evening.
‘Shameful’: Some council members rally behind resolution
In the afternoon committee meeting, Mosley left council chambers when Fusco said he would be voting against the measure. She did not return to any committee meetings later that day and attended the 7 p.m. meeting virtually.
“This afternoon was very hard,” she said at the evening meeting, after council voted to take time on the item and return to it May 9. “It was so disrespectful to him, so disrespectful to his legacy, so disrespectful to his family. We have to be better than this.”
Mosley went on to say she believed there was a “concerted effort” to kill the measure, a sentiment several other members — as well as Mike Williams — seemed to share.
Neal, the primary sponsor of the legislation, was censured earlier this year after butting heads with council leadership. He has repeatedly told the Beacon Journal he believes city administration and council leadership is attempting to silence him for his various opinions, a viewpoint both the mayor’s office and council leadership have disputed.
Monday’s meeting was no different: Neal said the discussion reflected a “lack of integrity, honesty and respectfulness,” doubling down that “politics have corrupted” City Council.
“Let’s not play games down here,” he said to council. “I’m sincerely concerned with this council’s ability to address the real issues … The problem is that (politics) encroaches the political process and pollutes our ability to serve our citizens.”
Ward 8’s Shammas Malik called Monday’s discussion “shameful,” saying that while it’s “no secret” certain members of council disagree and personally dislike each other, “that shouldn’t get in the way of honoring” Williams.
“When we look at the legacy of Judge Williams’ service, it’s easy,” he said. “We should be falling over ourselves to find a way to honor him, and that has not been the energy with which we approached this issue.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Nancy Holland echoed Malik’s points, saying that there is “more than enough honor and tribute” to go around.
“I just want to recognize a man who did good for the community, and the councilman of that ward is bringing the recommendation forth,” said Omobien, at-large, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation. “You don’t have a lot of Black icons around on buildings or being talked about in this city or other cities. … I think we need to have more of that.”
Fusco rejected the arguments made against council leadership and the bill’s opposition, reiterating that not only is it uncommon for the city to rename a building, but that the public service director is the person to do that, not council.
“There were questions that weren’t answered,” Fusco said. “To talk about politics being played and put words into our mouths, I’m not going to stand for it.”
‘It’s petty’: Williams takes aim at city officials
Mike Williams himself served on City Council for 28 years, including 10 as the Ward 4 representative. He said he experienced the turbulence of City Council politics, but it makes him “very sad” they would “stoop this low.”
“It’s petty. It’s dishonoring the entire community. These individuals have taken it upon themselves to attack and diminish the leadership that has been elected by the African American community and Akron at large,” he said, referring to Neal, who has been re-elected in every election since taking office in 2010.
Williams said while he has “no idea” what will happen Monday, he is still hopeful council will vote in favor of the resolution, though he said that is unlikely, given what he calls a history of repeated attacks on Neal’s credibility.
In the end, he said, he has learned from his years of service to not take issues — even ones like this — personally. Instead, he said he is interested in serving the residents of Ward 4, with whom he said he has had many discussions in support of renaming the center.
“This is a loving, nurturing community, and the Lawton Street Community Center — soon to be James R. Williams Community Center, I hope — sits at its the center,” Williams said. “I want to do right by my father and the residents here who want to honor one of their own — one of the best and brightest right here in the heart of Ward 4.”
Reporter Abbey Marshall is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.