Fact Friday #35 - Dr. John Taylor Williams #CharlotteBlackHistory


Happy Friday everyone!

Dr. John Taylor (J.T.) Williams, educator, physician, and businessman, was born in the northern part of Cumberland County, the son of free black parents, Peter Williams, a successful lumberman, and Flora Ann McKay. Although his father was illiterate, his mother was not, and when J.T. was six she began to teach him to read. In 1867 the family moved to Harnett County, where the father hired a white widow to teach his 12 children in return for his working on her farm. Between 1868 and 1870 John mastered Webster's blue back speller and other books and became an avid reader. By age sixteen he had read widely among volumes of memoirs, history, and biographies.

John Taylor (J.T.) Williams, May 1, 1859 – June 8, 1924
Image courtesy of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library

His parents were active church members—his father was a Presbyterian and his mother a Methodist. John joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at age thirteen and set out on a course that led him to hold every church position open to a layman. He represented his denomination at quarterly, district, and annual conferences regularly for eighteen years and represented the Western North Carolina Conference in the General Conference of 1892, when it met in Pittsburg, Pa.

In 1876 he entered the Howard Normal College in Fayetteville (now Fayetteville State University) and in 1880 graduated at the head of his class. Thereafter he taught school in Lillington, Monroe, Rutherfordton, Southport, and Charlotte. In Charlotte he was assistant principal but resigned in 1883 to study medicine at Shaw University’s Leonard Medical College in Raleigh. Following his graduation in 1886 with the M.D. degree, he was licensed by the State Board of Medical Examiners, one of the first African-Americans to qualify.

Settling in Charlotte, he soon had a large practice and became a surgeon in charge of the Union Hospital, visiting surgeon at the Good Samaritan Hospital (which was located where Bank of America Stadium sits now), and a member of the Board of Health of Mecklenburg County. In 1888, as surgeon of the First Battalion, North Carolina State Guards he was appointed to the rank of captain by Governor Alfred M. Scales. In 1889 and 1891 he was elected to the board of aldermen of Charlotte. He also was a successful businessman as president of the Queen City Drug Company and with real estate and farming investments. He was a founding member of the Grace A. M. E. Zion Church on South Brevard Street, Charlotte, and a trustee of the A. M. E. Zion Publishing Company. President William McKinley in 1897 appointed him the U.S. consul to Sierra Leone, where Williams continued to serve until 1906 as one of the first African-American diplomats.

In 1887 he married May E. Killian of Raleigh, but she died shortly afterwards. In 1890 Williams married Jennie E. Harris, of Concord, the niece of W. C. Coleman and a graduate of Scotia Seminary and Livingstone College. They were the parents of a daughter, Aurelia. In June of 1928, he suffered a stroke during services at Grace A.M.E. Zion and died later that evening. He was buried in Ninth Street Pinewood Cemetery, Charlotte.

The southern end of Brevard Street contained the nicest residences in the Second Ward, and was also home to many of the city’s black-owned businesses. This view (below) from 1950 is of the most prestigious African-American block in the city and shows three of the most important buildings on Brevard. The house on the far left belonged to Williams. Dr. Williams went to church next door at Grace A.M.E. Zion, constructed in 1900 and a focal point for the religious and social activities of the Brooklyn neighborhood. On the far right is the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building, built in 1922 as the first structure in Charlotte planned and executed by African-Americans to accommodate black businesses, professional offices, and civic organizations.

This block (above) is one of the few sections of the Second Ward that wasn’t affected by federal improvement policies, and most of it remains today. The Williams home was torn town in the 1970s, and the lot is now empty. Most of Grace A.M.E. Zion’s parishioners moved to West Charlotte after “urban renewal,” but it still played a substantial role in the city’s black community. May former Second Ward residents still fondly identity themselves with the church, which was saved from demolition in 2006 when the Charlotte Historic Landmarks Commission agreed to purchase and preserve it after the congregation moved. 

As a proud graduate of the middle school that was named in Williams’ honor (J.T. Williams Middle School, now closed), it gives me great pride to share this information with you all. :) 

Until next week!

Chris. 

Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback! 

Information taken from:

NCPedia.org; written by William S. Powell (1994) 

The John Taylor Williams Legacy

Charlotte Then and Now, 2013, Brandon Lunsford.

Additional commentary added. 

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass