Jo Harolyn Long Williams, a fervent and far-reaching advocate for the arts on San Antonio’s East Side, will be memorialized at a service Saturday in the auditorium of the Carver Community Cultural Center, which she led as executive director for 24 years.

Long died Oct. 12 at age 71.

“Jo put the Carver on the map,” said Cassandra Parker-Nowicki, executive director of the Carver since 2019 after 11 years as its cultural center supervisor.

Parker-Nowicki praised Long’s innovative programming and commitment to accessibility and equity that laid the foundation for the community center’s continuing importance and attracted national attention. In 2004, the Carver’s auditorium was named the Jo Long Theatre for the Performing Arts in honor of her work.

Jo Long, the first executive director of the Carver Community Cultural Center.
Jo Long served 24 years as the executive director of the Carver Community Cultural Center. Credit: Courtesy / Sammye Shelvin

In 1992, Long testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior to advocate for continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which she said was “crucial to the Carver’s development because it … validated the city’s investment in the center.”

Long also pointed out that the Carver became an economic generator for its surrounding neighborhood, which had long been neglected by the city the Lubbock native came to call home following her 1972 graduation from Southern Methodist University.

Under Long’s leadership, what began as a community library with an annual budget of $150,000 grew to a cultural center with a $1 million budget that presented national artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Paul Robeson, as well as highlighting the work of San Antonio artists in its lobby gallery.

Former city employee Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison said Long and her successor Yonnie Blanchette continually astonished with their programming. “Every year they would put on such a fabulous season. And I would always say, ‘OK, you can’t top it next year. And somehow they would find those acts that, you know, you’re blessed that they found their way to San Antonio.”

Jamison worked with Long on managing the Carver’s budget in the 1980s as it expanded and undertook improvements to its facilities.

“She came along at a perfect time, and really gave her life to the Carver,” Jamison said. “The community really has a huge debt to pay.”

Jamison credited Long with an early focus on multicultural programming.

“She focused on exposing the community to multicultural events,” she said. “While having its roots in the African American culture, she did feel it was her responsibility to expose the African American culture to other cultures. The multicultural, diverse audience that the Carver has had over the years is because of that.”

In Long’s appearances before the Texas Commission on the Arts and the NEA seeking funding, as well as her local advocacy assuring city funding for the Carver’s mission, Jamison said “Jo was a force to be reckoned with.”

The Carver Community Cultural Center's auditorium bears Jo Long's name.
The Carver Community Cultural Center’s auditorium bears Jo Long’s name. Credit: Courtesy / Carver Community Cultural Center

In a memoriam sent by the Carver, Parker-Nowicki called her predecessor visionary, brilliant, and uncompromising.

“The impact Jo Long Williams had in shaping the cultural landscape of our City and beyond cannot be overstated,” Parker-Nowicki wrote. “Jo’s visionary multicultural programming and uncompromising commitment to equitable access for all” are “hallmarks [that] continue to be the guideposts by which the Carver carries on the work today.”

The sandstorms of West Texas might be what gave Long her perfectionist streak. Each day, her mother Marie Thompson Long would come home from work and inspect the windowsills for telltale dust and reprimand her children if the sills and baseboards were not spotless. After Long’s mother became a widow, young Jo Long would cook for the family and look after her younger siblings until mom returned home from work.

Those lessons stuck throughout Long’s life, said sister Sammye Shelvin. “She instilled those kinds of qualities in us. We grew up to do our best in life.”

Parker-Nowicki remembers Long as “a super intelligent woman who had a very strong vision and [was] uncompromising in it. She was unwavering. She faced opposition and she ruffled feathers, but she did everything that she thought she needed to do in service to … the community.”

Long is survived by husband Woodrow Williams and stepson Ryan Williams; siblings Sammye Shelvin, June Long, and Michael Long; niece Adrienne Scales and nephew Samuel Shelvin.

The Oct. 30 memorial service in the Jo Long Theatre will begin at 11 a.m. and is open to the public.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...