Leo Williams: How a ‘country boy’ from eastern NC came to lead one of NC’s fastest-growing cities

Durham's new mayor, Leo Williams, and his wife, Zweli, at his December inauguration. (Photo by Jenny Warburg)

By Billy Ball

December 22, 2023

Leo Williams is an up-and-coming political leader with a deep background in education. We talked to him about being the mayor of his adopted city, and the pressures of leading in tumultuous times.

Leonardo Williams is the new mayor of Durham, NC, one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

It has world-class restaurants, a history of civil rights leaders and Black entrepreneurial excellence, and a sense that it is, or is about to be, exploding.

Like most growing cities, it hums with construction. The skyline changes literally every day. The city center is stretching ever outward. Durham will look very different in 20 years, like it or not. It’s not as quiet as it used to be, this old tobacco city that’s turned its sprawling warehouses into condos and big development.

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All of this to say Williams, who most folks call “Leo,” is a man now entrusted with the future of a Southern city with big ambitions and all the problems of growing.

But Williams is a “country boy,” he says, from rural Halifax County. Halifax is part of the historic “Black belt”—a swath of historic Southern communities. The name refers to the color and richness of the soil. But it’s also about the people. These were plantation lands. Many descendants of a once-enslaved people live here still, on a carpet of brown and green farmlands that yield tobacco, soy beans, and more. In NC, these counties are situated in the east and northeast, which is where Williams grew up in the Enfield, Scotland Neck, and Hobgood area. Later, he lived just over the county line in Rocky Mount.

“When you come out of a place like where we’re from…you realize that you don’t have many chances to get it right,” Williams says. “And so, therefore, you take your chances that you have a lot more seriously. That’s like someone coming from a third world country, and they come to America and they’re like, ‘Wow, this person’s so smart. They got it together.’ No, they just realize that they have one opportunity to get it right. They have nothing to fall back on.”

“I relied on education as my way out,” he adds.

Williams is from a part of the state some people don’t think of when they think about “good schools” or educational opportunities, even if the way we grade “failing schools” is more a reflection of community poverty than intelligence, talent, or good teachers anyway.

Halifax County is the origin of North Carolina’s Leandro lawsuit, a seminal civil rights case over longstanding education inequalities. Leandro has been pending in one way or another for 30 years, making its way through lower courts and then higher courts and then back again, but never with any resolution. It’s a story of underfunded rural schools—many of them serving predominantly low-income people who tend to be Black or Brown—that started when Williams was a child.

Leo Williams: How a ‘country boy’ from eastern NC came to lead one of NC’s fastest-growing cities

Enfield, NC, an eastern NC town in Halifax County. (Photo by Michael McElroy for Cardinal & Pine)

Education problems don’t just stay in the schools. It’s why counties out in eastern NC are shrinking in a state that’s growing. Agriculture endures. Fields of cotton, tobacco, soybeans, and grains stretch for miles. Industry’s withered. It’s pretty out here—so flat you feel like you can see one end of it from the other. The stars feel closer. And sometimes it’s so quiet you feel like the only person. But natives, like me, tend to think of it as a place to leave, not a place to come to.

Some people, when they’re surrounded by a lack of education or chances, hold tightly to what they do have. And they, like Williams, tend to seek out more and more of it. “I probably have one of the longest, if not the longest, education resumes of any generally elected person in the state of North Carolina,” Williams says. It doesn’t sound like he’s bragging. It sounds like he’s stating facts.

Williams is a rising NC political leader, a success story from a place that doesn’t always get those, a strapping football player—and drum major in the halftime marching band(!)—who threw himself into education. After more than a decade in K-12 consulting, teaching, and school administration—he’s a two-time local Teacher of the Year—Williams opened a trendy restaurant in Durham with his wife, Zweli, a decorated chef. This year, they opened another. In February, a local magazine crowned him and Zweli two of the city’s most important “influencers.”

And two weeks ago, Williams was sworn in as mayor of Durham, in front of a packed house.

So naturally, as we prepare to talk about his future, I instead ask him about where he’s from, not where he is.

‘The big city’

When I meet him in his City Hall office, Williams is wearing a trim blue suit. He’s tall, 6’5” or so, and soft-spoken. He’s quiet, but he can still take over a room.

In politics, you’re rewarded for talking fast and loud. Williams seems to take a different approach—he thinks before he talks.

“When we went to the big city, it was either Rocky Mount or Elizabeth City,” he says, of his childhood. “My uncle lived there. So I spent my summers in Elizabeth City, and I would go to the waterfront cause I would say, ‘Wow, look at the ocean.’ Although it’s just, it’s an inlet.”

I tell him I’m from Elizabeth City. You don’t often see eastern North Carolinians out of eastern NC, but when you do, you recognize each other.

Williams left his native Halifax County after graduating from what was then Southeast Halifax High. Because he loved it, he studied music at Durham’s NC Central University, the city’s proud historically Black college, which has a knack for churning out leaders.

“When I left Scotland Neck, NC, and I came to Durham and I saw that one tall green building on 15-501, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m in the big city now. Wow.’ I was just blown away.”

Leo Williams: How a ‘country boy’ from eastern NC came to lead one of NC’s fastest-growing cities

Leo Williams was sworn in as Durham’s new mayor in December. (Photo by Jenny Warburg)

In education circles, K-12 advocates eat, sleep, and breathe it. You get the sense Williams will never lose the habit.

“Education should be the biggest thing that everyone is worried about,” he says. “And it’s not even a discussion.”

In North Carolina, state lawmakers have underfunded public schools, year after year, advocates say, while expanding funding for privately held charter schools and public vouchers for private schools. Gov. Roy Cooper called it a “state of emergency” for public education this year. And in D.C., Donald Trump is running for president with a promise to abolish the federal Department of Education.

“This could be a bit explicit what I’m about to say, but I sometimes look at Congress as a cancer and the cancer is now inside of our bodies as a community and it’s reaching our breathing tubes,” Williams says. “Education is our breathing tube, and the threat is real. The threat is close. And who wins in 2024 determines what happens to our Department of Education.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the rural places that Williams is from.

Rural schools don’t have the money in the local tax base to make up for long-standing funding shortfalls from state government. Bigger, wealthier counties do. So schools in rural counties tend to spend just a fraction of the amount on education that affluent counties do. They have less experienced teachers and principals. They have fewer advanced classes, older books, aging buildings, dated tech.

Republican and Democratic judges alike have agreed North Carolina hasn’t funded Leandro schools appropriately. The case has been going on since the early 1990s. But in November 2022, the courts finally lost their patience, and a state Superior Court judge ordered NC to pay out hundreds of millions to those schools. Republican lawmakers in the legislature refused. In 2022, a Democratic majority of the high court agreed the state has to pay. But a new Republican majority on the court in 2023 took the unusual step of immediately retracting a prior court’s ruling.

“And now we are taking on what Black history we’re going to teach, what books people can read,” Williams adds. “That’s what I mean by the cancer as a threat to our breathing, our pipeline, our breathing tubes.”

‘It started as a lie’: Locals push back against Moms for Liberty in NC. Click here to read.

Williams says public schools need to be able to tell their stories better, whether it’s in Durham or in rural counties. Public schools educate most of the state’s children, and they tend to serve more challenging students from poorer communities. That’s because they must serve any child that enrolls. They can’t, like charters or private schools, pick who they will teach and who they will not.

Local public school systems, particularly ones with larger tax bases like Durham, have expanded their learning options with more specialty schools and more flexible curriculums, although inequalities remain, even here, far away from the fields of Halifax County. Williams points out his son is a senior at the NC School of Science and Math, a publicly funded school that’s based in Durham but operates as a part of the UNC system.

“He’s knocking it out of the park,” says Williams. “The resources that he has available to him, the scholarships that are being thrown at him. But he’s also in a world very different than just a senior at Hillside High School,” the traditional public high school across town.

“And that alone is a problem,” Williams says.

‘Sometimes you just want to turn off’

Later, we talk about affordable housing, public transit, about a drink a local bar created for him called a “Leo Old Fashioned.” He gushes about another drink called “The Mayor” at his restaurant, like an old fashioned but with spicy honey — “so freakin’ good,” he says.

And we talk about the fighting happening in the Gaza Strip. City Council members have been considering drafting a resolution on it. Durham’s been the scene of several high-profile protests over the conflict. It’s not something the typical NC mayor has to think about. The mayor of Enfield, where Williams is from about a hundred or so miles east, probably isn’t considering something like this.

Leo Williams: How a ‘country boy’ from eastern NC came to lead one of NC’s fastest-growing cities

New Durham Mayor Leo Williams is sworn in in December 2023 by NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls (left). His wife, Zweli Williams, was at his side. (Photo by Jenny Warburg)

“Sometimes you just want to turn off,” Williams says. Last night on the street, he tells me, six strangers stopped and hugged him when he walked past. Today, he overheard people talking about his drink on the bus.

There’s a lot of noise on the other side of Williams’ office door. But in his office today, you can’t hear the grinding of construction or the honk of cars. City Hall’s mostly empty. People are going home for the holidays. The receptionist is still here, though. You can hear her typing. Williams exhales deeply

“I just feel lifted. I just feel supported,” he tells me. “But sometimes you got to turn it off too, and you go to a place where you don’t know anyone, no one knows you.”

Little chance of that, Mayor Leo. On my way out, his receptionist calls in to remind him of the next person that’s waiting to meet him.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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