NASHVILLE, TN — Kwame Leo Lillard was the younger of two children born in Bartow, FL with a few grades completed there for schooling. With the entrepreneurial spirit in tow for a larger city, his mother and father chose Nashville to fulfill the calling to further the opportunity for business. With the burgeoning growth of Music City, his parents garnered customers for both cosmetology and upholstery, but Leo adored the bustling cohesive nature of the Black community. This was the impetus of the young mind for Leo, learning all the intricacies of networking in Nashville’s Black Community by attending schools at Carter Lawrence, Pearl High School and the beloved Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial College. Between the established South Nashville and business savvy North Nashville, one couldn’t lose! The irreplaceable Black dollar stayed in the same area long enough for children and families to enduringly be secure without resting on one single laurel.
With all he saw, there was an important mantra being pushed: education and skill! ‘The calculating brain for Leo lent itself to the balanced and structured ideal of math in Engineering. He was actually able to find a way to bridge math and culture together in Industrial Engineering; his studies were the origin of how he would fight for poor housing codes in New York City, to not close the only historically Black high school for Nashville in the ‘70s, take a stand for how 1-440 would further break apart and ruin neighborhoods far after 1-40 already had, and represent District 5 as the proverbial “rebel” for the Nashville City Council.
Rebellion as a practice is not always a positive course of action and at times is counterproductive. Most importantly, though, it never leads to enlightenment. However, to be a revolutionary is neither always popular nor overwhelmingly accepted yet can be a sustaining accomplishment to transform a world. Leo learned this in New York as a City Planner supporting families combating poor housing codes and practices from the powers on high. ‘There were many people of multiple agencies to call upon, interact, and argue with, get answers, and learn from, all while sharing the ideal in action to make people safe in their homes. He was enamored with the diversity of New York in all the cultures, music, modes of transportation, and foods! ‘Therefore, the infectious verbal and passionate spirit New Yorkers embodied provided a meaningful education: even if you don’t agree with someone, the resource of that person’s thoughts is a tool to glean additional wisdom. Consequently, in due course, he met North Carolinian Evelyn Downing, who became his wife of 53 years.
As a skillful Industrial Planner, he used the medium of television and pictures to convey meaning. Catching someone’s attention with wordplay disassociation as to “white-ball the establishment”, or not stand while the Pledge of Allegiance is being recited as ‘The Tennessean takes a candid shot is classic Leo- ‘The wit is most certainly not to be confused with any tongue-in-cheek triteness, but for you to take heed: there is an educated Black Man imparting impactful knowledge for action and (perhaps) uprising!
Additionally, during this time, another layer of evolution was taking place within; a desire to go straight to the Motherland of our ethnic experience here in the United States for inspiration. First, take upon an African name: Kwame, meaning 1 born on Saturday; and secondly, create the African American Cultural Alliance! Goals may have been lofty in the beginning, but then Black Nashville in the ‘50s did astoundingly well long before a Black Pages ever existed here. It will be exciting to build an organization that will bridge history, Blackness, culture, and agency into a union… It is indeed a passion and a purpose unified. It is perfect for Leo to forge on to make it come to fruition.
The knowledge in him oozed out from engaging with others, so teaching became an innate practice. Whether setting up a Kwanzaa display at work; speaking at elementary schools during Black History Month; keeping the spirit of the Freedom Fighters alive in the hearts and minds of others compelled to know what a sacrifice to dwell on this earth means; to receive and host co-ed university students on guided bus tours from near and far to share what Civil Rights imbues; to extract K -12 students from their seats in the assembly to sit at a make-shift lunch counter to be yelled at, harassed and aggressively cajoled; to learn and annually commemorate the United States Colored Troops legacy to maintain this nation; and to facilitate the many moving parts of the re-known African Street Festival in Nashville clearly demonstrate Leo’s unyielding love of community, Blackness, history, and culture.
Leo Kwame Lillard is preceded in death by his parents, Leo Lancelot Lillard and Louise Taylor Lillard; and sister, Ellen L. Carr.
He is survived by his wife, Evelyn Downing; son, Leo K. (Marcia) Lillard; daughter, Jessica S. (devoted friend Elliott) Lillard; son, Joshua (devoted friend Laura) Gosiac; daughter, Nyleve L. (Steven) Anderson; adopted son, Chiffonda Washington; adopted daughter, Mia Cole (Spencer) Washington; grandchildren, Spencer Rocquan, Steven “Benton” (father Steve), Aaliyah Jean, Mariah Jonelle, Leo Jordan “IV”, Malcolm William, Skyler Amre’, Malena Imani and Kyan Louis; Joyce Perkins (mother of Leo and Jessica); nephew, Lewis (Mari) Carr; great-niece, Misa Carr; and innumerate loving, energetic family who enjoyed playing tennis, skiing, meticulous calendar keeping of family events, and Sunday meals around the table with robust discussion and enactments.
An awkward, younger teenage Leo has grown-up to recognize how wonderful, sustaining and fun-loving his Pearl High Class of1957 is. No event in Nashville goes unmet without them all responding and participating. Alongside trusted friends, cohorts, and colleagues: Harold Jude “Smitty” Smith, Cepo Dumasani, King Hollands, Rossi “Bombata” Turner, Louis Smiley, Lem Peterkin, Richard Beasley, and Joseph Love. Lastly, he has been an actively engaged soul never wanting empowerment to be left by the wayside. The Downing Family has been a long-lasting source of support and balance to complete that circle of family.