Culture

Owner of Historic Diner That Served As A Safe Haven For Civil Rights Leaders, Turns 107-Years-Old

Owner of Historic Diner That Served As A Safe Haven For Civil Rights Leaders, Turns 107-Years-Old

This is what we call living history. Mrs. Leila Williams, owner of Atlanta’s historic “Leila’s Dinette,” turned 107 years old this week.

Williams and her late husband Charlie opened “Leila’s Dinette" in the late 1940s. For over 40 years, people from all over flocked to Southwest Atlanta to taste her good food but more importantly, to be in good community.

The dinette was also a place where civil rights leaders came to “strategize and spend quality time,” Charlotte Webb, Mrs. Williams goddaughter, told NBC News.

Over the years, Williams and her husband hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Congressman John Lewis, and a host of other movement leaders.

Mrs. Williams’ place was also the spot college students from nearby Spelman and Morehouse would come to eat. Atlanta business executive Julius Hollis remembers the place fondly. “Leila's Dinette was the anchor in the Black community and as a young boy growing up in that area, on many occasions I would go in and there I would see Dr. Benjamin Mays, and I would see John Lewis. I would see a great cross-section of political and business leaders throughout Black Atlanta,” Hollis told NBC.

The dinette became a safe haven for Black people all around Atlanta. The diner closed in the early 1990s, staying vacant over a decade before being bought and renovated by Keitra Bates. It has now been transformed into a shared kitchen called Marddy’s, where chefs of color can come to make their food to sell to their customers. 

“We were stepping into some very big shoes. That we were stepping into a place that just is hallowed ground for Black independence in Atlanta, because it was opened in 1949 and there were not many places we could go and be served with dignity. Ms. Leila created a space where that could happen and so I feel we are continuing that legacy with Marddy's,” Bates said.

While the dinette was known for its amazing food, people remember Williams most for caring nature and generosity. “She fed people even if they didn’t have money. She just had this kind spirit about her, and people remember her. To her, everybody was equal,” Webb said.

Williams celebrated her 107th birthday among family and friends at the Glenwood Health & Rehab Center in Decatur, Georgia. She received more than 10,000 birthday wishes and cards.

Happy Birthday Mrs. Williams. Thank you for all you’ve done!