Seated in the living room of her duplex in southeast Lancaster, Louise Williams rubs her right knee. 

“It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “It just gets stiff.”

Williams, who turns 82 in May, is a former magisterial district judge and city councilwoman. For decades, she has been one of the most active and widely respected civic figures in Lancaster.

“There’s no living council person who’s contributed as much to the city or contributed in as many different ways as Louise Williams has,” city councilman Ismail Smith-Wade-El said.

But Williams’ public role was interrupted abruptly in early 2017, when she slipped and fell coming out of the YWCA after a board meeting.

It was clear the injury was serious.

“My knee was in the back of my leg,” she said.

Her ambulance trip began a lengthy odyssey. She underwent multiple operations, including a knee replacement that October, followed by extensive rehabilitation.

She was away from her home for more than a year, either at a medical facility or staying with relatives. She only finished physical therapy a couple of months ago.

She can walk without a cane and go up and down stairs. But she’s being cautious.

“It’s been a long haul,” she said. “I’m just taking it day by day and trying to get myself back.”

A career of firsts

A Democrat, Williams was on City Council for three terms, from 2006 to 2018, and was the first black woman to serve as council president.

In 1973, she became Pennsylvania’s first female black district judge and the first woman in that role in Lancaster, serving 26 years. She was appointed to the state Board of Pardons in 1998, becoming the board’s first black woman and first victim’s advocate, and serving 18 years.

Louise Williams 1973

Louise Williams in 1973, the year she was appointed to succeed Walter Harrison as district justice after his death. Williams, then 36, had been Harrison's secretary for 11 years. 

She was involved in many community organizations, including terms as president of the Lancaster NAACP and of Girls’ Services Inc. of Lancaster, a counterpart to the Boys Club. The two later merged to form the Boys and Girls Club of Lancaster.

“She’s done so much,” said Barbara Wilson, a former City Councilwoman who left to become executive director of the city housing authority.

Williams was council president for Wilson’s first two years, and “led by example,” Wilson said.

Smith-Wade-El knew Williams growing up because of her friendship with his mother, Rita Smith-Wade-El, who died in December. He said Williams was a mentor to him and was the person who first suggested he run for City Council.

‘In no hurry’

Former Mayor Rick Gray, an attorney, represented clients before Williams “dozens of times” in her district judge days. He won some and lost some, he said, but always felt he’d gotten a fair shake.

Once, when Gray and Williams were canvassing together during their first run for office, a man yelled to Williams that he was going to vote for her, even though she had sent him to jail.

As mayor, it was a pleasure to work with Williams in city government, Gray said.

Williams said she wouldn’t rule out returning to civic involvement in some capacity eventually, but not until she feels she’s ready.

In the meantime, she’s staying busy by, among other things, reading — a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” sits on her coffee table.

Obama sent Williams a letter in 2009 offering congratulations after William’s received the Jean Kohr award from the Lancaster County Women’s Alliance. The award honors women whose spirit, purpose and actions are dedicated to improving the quality of life for all women in the community.

Williams also spends time playing the piano, traveling and spending time with family and friends. She’s looking forward to a grandson’s high school graduation.

“I’m in no hurry,” she said. “I can dedicate time to myself and getting back on my feet.”