Art Burton described a recent phone call from another Richmond activist, Lynetta Thompson, who was agitated about a political situation.
“I wasn’t really helping her, and Lynetta really wasn’t really feeling me. And finally, Lynetta said to me, ‘I would normally be talking to Lillie,’ and hung up the phone,” he recalled.
A burst of knowing laughter cut through the collective grief at the funeral of community organizer Lillie A. Estes.
“I got it, because Lillie was the center of the wheel. … And now Lillie is gone,” Burton said. “And so, now we have to talk to each other. And that’s the way Lillie would want it.”
Estes, a self-described “community strategist” who insisted on empowerment for the impoverished, died Jan. 31 of cardiovascular disease at her Gilpin Court apartment. She was 59.
“We were in the presence of a great woman,” said the Rev. Tyrone Nelson, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. He said Estes’ influence “reached from Gilpin to the halls of Harvard.”
Tuesday, at Sixth Mount Zion, a diverse gathering said farewell to a woman described as the “queen mother” of local community organizers.
Those assembled at the historic Jackson Ward church — separated from Gilpin Court by an interstate highway — included Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras and members of the Richmond City Council. But the service was mainly a forum for family, friends and fellow community organizers to say farewell, with heavy hearts and occasionally lighthearted stories, near a large, striking photograph of Estes propped on an easel.
“Lillie’s life does not end here. Just know that,” said her friend, Jenise Justice. “It lives on through all of us. And we all have a responsibility, whether we want it or not.”
Maya Rockeymoore, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party and the president of Global Policy Solutions, a Washington-based firm, quoted the West Indian philosopher Frantz Fanon in saying “the oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”
“Well, Lillie’s life and work was laser-focused on how to build the esteem and capacity of those who had been beaten down by systemic racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, social exclusion,” Rockeymoore said.
“How to get the oppressed to believe the best of themselves and their communities was what Lillie was all about, and making that work in the way that resulted in resistance, renewal and transformation. And how to get those in power to see their success as being synonymous with success of marginalized communities.”
Estes, without fanfare, gained a national reputation as a voice for the empowerment of public housing residents. She had a longtime collaboration with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University.
The Hampton Roads native and Virginia Commonwealth University graduate served on the advisory board of the mayor’s anti-poverty commission, which would become the Office of Community Wealth Building. She was a driving force behind the establishment of the Charles S. Gilpin Community Farm on a vacant lot on St. Peter Street.
Estes was one of the founding leaders of RePHRAME — Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Eviction. She also served on the board of the Virginia Poverty Law Center and on the advisory council for Hope in the Cities, a Richmond-based organization that promotes racial reconciliation.
Jean Trounstine, an activist, author and professor emerita at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, recalled Estes furiously phoning people to find out what had happened to a Gilpin Court man who’d been picked up by the police.
“She cared about people. She cared about people who were at the lowest of the low as much as she cared about people who were at the highest of the high,” Trounstine said. “She was a moral compass for a lot of us. … I wanted to hear her thoughts about people. Because I trusted her.”
Several speakers said her death has sparked a renewed sense of mission.
“You can’t say you loved Lillie Estes and leave people in public housing cold,” Burton said. “You can’t say you loved Lillie Estes and leave little children in their homes fighting rats. You can’t say you loved Lillie Estes and not stand for health equity and food justice.”
Tobias Estes, 25, shared his mother’s trauma when his bother and best friend, John E. Williams Jr., was slain in Essex Village in July 2010. “Not once did I see her cry. Not once did I see her complain about the situation we were in,” he said — not even during a period when they were homeless.
“She was my strong friend. She was honestly Richmond’s strong friend,” he said.
Robert Eric “Buster” Estes penned a poem in memory of his sister, whom he called by her family nickname Sam.
Titled “I Would Have Done It For Free,” it read in part:
I have given my life, let my work speak for me please. People in public housing, need not beg on their knees. …
Buster, I would do this for free, my sister said to me. These bureaucrats must see. These people need a voice. They can speak loud through me.
Can you carry on my sister’s legacy? Can you do that for me? In all that you may do, can you do that for free?
The service ended with one last call to action.
“I’m sure Lillie wants us to know that the best is yet to come. And the only way we can get there is to keep on finding hope and pushing the work forward, speaking truth, demanding justice,” Nelson said in his eulogy.
“She led and cleared the way. We’ve just got to keep on moving.”