Black History Month in the South Bay: Historical and Present Day Figures

In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to shine a light on historical Bay Area figures whose efforts cleared a path for a brighter, more equitable future, as well as those who are continuing to carry the torch and making history in their own right. 

Here we take a look at the impact South Bay residents Iola Williams and Eric Kelly have made. Learn more about their contributions to history below.

Feature image: Street mural on Fulton Street in San Francisco/Cmichel67 Wikimedia Commons

Iola Williams, a South Bay city councilor and figure in Black History
Photo: Iola Williams

Iola Williams

Iola Williams was born on February 2, 1936, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She grew up in Hattiesburg and got married in 1955 to an Air Force officer, whose career caused the two and their children to frequently move cities. Williams landed in San Jose in 1969. She was working as a licensed vocational nurse when she decided to run for her local school board. Not long after, Williams became the first African-American to be elected to the Franklin-McKinley School District school board, and she held that post until her appointment to the San Jose City Council in 1979.

Williams was a trailblazer in San Jose city politics. The 1970s in San Jose saw a boom of women winning public office — a trend that Williams portended with her 1970 school board victory. This electoral trend even caused some to call Santa Clara County the “feminist capital of the world.” Williams was also the first African American to serve on the city council, and she served on it until her 1991 retirement. 

Iola Williams at the 1986 BAYMEC Dinner in San Jose
Photo: Williams at the BAYMEC dinner in 1986

Williams championed civil rights for women, minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. She was noted to have been the only elected official to attend the 1986 dinner held by the LGBTQ rights organization Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC). After 12 years on the city council, Williams retired from San Jose politics and returned to her hometown of Hattiesburg. She continued to be heavily involved in community affairs, like helping to revamp Hattiesburg’s USO Club and create the African American Military History Museum

In 2016, the San Jose African-American Community Service Agency recognized Williams with a Lifetime Achievement Award, an award that the organization renamed after Williams. At the ceremony, Williams commented on the history undergirding her achievements: 

“My grandmother could not vote. My mother, it wasn’t until the 70s until she could vote. So a lot of things happened during that time. They seemed like little things but they carried families through the years. We have seen a lot of the things that remain, but there’s so much that has to be done.” 

Williams passed away at the age of 83 on April 4, 2019, from Parkinson’s disease.

Silicon Valley executive Eric Kelly, South Bay Black History
Photo: Eric Kelly

Eric Kelly

San Jose-based Eric Kelly has been making waves in the tech world for over three decades. Kelly grew up in Berkeley and Oakland before crossing the Bay for college. He earned a B.S. in business management from San Jose State University — where he now serves on the Tower Foundation‘s Board of Directors — an MBA from San Francisco State University and an executive MBA from Harvard University.

Kelly has held influential positions at a plethora of private and publicly traded companies in Silicon Valley. Currently, he is the Chairman and CEO of Overland-Tandberg, a data storage and cloud solutions company. Kelly has also held executive positions at recognizable companies like Adaptec Inc., Dell and IBM. His advisory positions include roles at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the global investment bank Nomura Securities Venture Group and more. Really, the list goes on. 

Silicon Valley executive Eric Kelly, South Bay Black History

In the government sphere, Kelly worked in the Obama Administration for an eight-year appointment to the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Specifically, he contributed to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee, which focused on revitalizing the American manufacturing and new technology sector. Kelly was also appointed to the U.S. Department of Commerce Advanced Manufacturing Council, where he was the Vice Chairman of the workforce subcommittee from 2013 to 2016.

Along with his work helming Overland-Tandberg and Silicon Valley Technology Partners, Inc., Kelly currently serves on a range of boards and committees in various sectors. In early 2024, he was elected to the Guardian Life Insurance Board of Directors, and he continues to impact global technology and finance. 

Celebrate Black History Month in the Bay Area

Looking for ways to honor the occasion? Check out these listings for events taking place this month.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

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