OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Willa Johnson, the beloved, pioneering Oklahoma City leader who became the first Black woman elected to the OKC City Council, has died at age 83.

“An era has ended in Oklahoma City. Willa Johnson has passed away. On behalf of the people of Oklahoma City, I send our deepest condolences to her family,” Mayor David Holt said on social media Friday.

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Willa Johnson with her friends and supporters. Image from Mayor David Holt’s Facebook page.

Johnson started her career as a civilian employee at Tinker Air Force Base. She served her country at the base for 20 years, according to Holt.

She then transitioned to a storied career in public service.

Johnson was elected as the Ward 7 City Councilmember in 1993. She held the position until 2007.

As a City Councilmember she made economic development and improving quality of life for community members a top priority. She also founded First Tee of Metropolitan Oklahoma City.

She went on to serve as Oklahoma County Commissioner for District 1, representing a wide area that includes all or part of Del City, Forrest Park, Jones, Lake Aluma, Luther, Midwest City, Oklahoma City and Spencer. She was re-elected to the position in 2010 and 2014, according to her Rotary Club of Oklahoma City profile.

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Willa Johnson and President Bill Clinton. From Mayor David Holt’s Facebook page.

As a county commissioner she was responsible for roads and bridges, and she served on the governing board of most county functions, as well as the County Budget Board.

Johnson said in 2017 that she pursued the County Commissioner position because she wanted to bring leaders together toward a greater good.

“When I ran in 2007 to complete the term of then Commissioner Roth, I wanted to help bring a spirit of cooperation and create an environment where elected officials work together for the good of the public,” Johnson said. “Not only did we do that, but it has continued.”

Johnson’s nearly 20 years of public service is filled with accomplishments that helped the city grow and its people thrive.

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Willa Johnson had a distinguished public service career as a City Councilmember and County Commissioner. From Mayor David Holt’s Facebook page.

She was also committed to commemorating prominent African Americans from throughout Oklahoma history. She succeeded in renaming five streets, installing historical plaques in the Deep Deuce area and placing Edwards Addition on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Rotary Club.

Johnson received many awards and honors for her public service, including induction into the African American Hall of Fame, an Honorary Doctorate from Oklahoma City University and her portrait among other African Americans of stature in the Oklahoma History Center.

Also, the Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center, a new recreation center under construction in Northeast Oklahoma City’s Douglass Park, is named in honor of Johnson.

Holt memorialized Johnson in the tribute he posted on social media. Much of that memorial is as follows:

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Willa Johnson swearing in Mayor David Holt. From Mayor David Holt’s Facebook page.

“Willa Johnson is an icon for many reasons. She was passionate and effective. She knew how to work with her colleagues and community partners to get things done for her community and the city at large. She leaves an incredible legacy, and was a contributor to achievements large and small, including the development and passage of MAPS 1 and MAPS for Kids.

Willa was my friend and we will all miss her dearly. I’ll forever remember her administering my oath of office when I became Mayor. We will all recall her with great fondness when we cut the ribbon on the Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center next year.

Where there was a Willa, there was always a way. We will miss you, Willa.”

Mayor David Holt
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Willa Johnson

Johnson was concluding her tenure as County Commissioner in 2017 when she reflected upon losing her first race for City Council 28 years prior. Her words are a testament to her dedication to public service and passion for helping others.

“Losing that first race for City Council 28 years ago was probably the best thing that could have happened. It motivated me to work harder to become a force for change. While I am finishing my final term, that desire to serve still burns bright.”