Captain William J. Williams: Lawyer, war veteran, first African American elected to the Chelsea Board of Aldermen
Captain William James Williams, one of Boston’s remarkable attorneys, broke the color line at the turn of the twentieth century, becoming the first African American to enter the volunteer army of the United States with a captain’s commission, and the first elected to the Chelsea Board of Aldermen.
He was born September 23, 1863 in Toronto, Canada, the son of James Munroe Williams and Maria Nettleton Williams. His parents brought him to Chelsea, Massachusetts, when he was a child.
Williams attended the Phillips School and Philips Exeter Academy. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1889, he, along with twenty-one other qualified applicants, including African American Edward B. Jourdain of New Bedford, was sworn in as a member of the Suffolk County Bar on July 23, 1889. Williams then opened a law office at 32 Pemberton Square in Boston.
On June 29, 1893, he married Sarah Hamilton Tasco, a 28-year-old schoolteacher from Lynn, Massachusetts. The couple initially found a home at 106 Addison Street in Chelsea. Three children were born of their marriage: James H. Williams on March 24, 1894, Alice L. Williams on November 1, 1896, and Robert T. Williams on August 10, 1900. In 1900, the Williams family moved to 44 Carmel Street in Chelsea.
At an early age, Williams became fascinated by military affairs. In 1891, he joined Company L of the Sixth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia and gradually rose to the rank of captain. On May 16, 1898, Governor Roger Wolcott, a Republican, signed his commission, making him the first African American to enter the volunteer army of the United States as a captain.
In a ceremony two days later at Camp Dewey in South Framingham, Massachusetts, Governor Wolcott formally presented commissions to Captain Williams and two other officers of Company L: First Lieutenant William Hubert Jackson and Second Lieutenant George W. Braxton. The Boston Post reported that “a great burst of applause and cheers greeted the handsome officer, and after the whole ceremony was over, Governor Wolcott turned to those on his staff who were near him and said, ‘There isn’t a better-looking officer in the whole field than Captain Williams.’”
A delegation of representative black men from Boston, consisting of ex-representatives Robert T. Teamoh and Charles Lewis Mitchell, attorneys Clement Garnett Morgan and Edward Everett Brown, George Washington Forbes, and others, witnessed the presentation of the commissions. At that time, Mitchell, a Civil War veteran and member of the old 54th Massachusetts Infantry, told Captain Williams that when he saw Governor Wolcott present the commissions to the black officers of Company L, he felt more than repaid for leaving a leg in South Carolina in the Civil War.
More than six feet tall, Captain Williams led his all-black company fighting in Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. He was taken ill with typhoid fever while there, and transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, where he remained for several weeks. For a time it was thought he wouldn’t survive, but he recovered. After completing his tour of duty, Williams set up an office at 18 Pemberton Square and resumed the practice of law.
On the evening of April 24, 1899, a dinner meeting took place at Young’s Hotel, celebrating the anniversary of Charles Sumner’s election to the United States Senate. Many of Boston’s leading black luminaries attended. Attorney Butler R. Wilson presided over the event. Speeches were made by Postmaster William H. Dupree, Clement Morgan, William H. Lewis and George W. Forbes.
Captain Williams and First Lieutenant Jackson spoke at the event as well. Frustrated that they and other black men loyal to the United States had fought the country’s battles abroad, and that the federal government had done nothing to protect African Americans’ civil rights at home, they said that every black man should carry a Winchester rifle, and whenever another was killed, their brethren should go out on the highways and byways and shoot down the first white man they saw. This sentiment was greeted with uproarious applause. Butler Wilson arose from his seat and said, “That’s my sentiment. I wish [it] could be telegraphed to President McKinley.”
Unfortunately, in those days black men were powerless to do anything but talk about retribution. Most clearly knew the difference between armed self-defense and retaliatory violence. But more than that, they understood the great peril that the latter posed. Indeed, they knew that even in cases of self-defense, blacks who committed violent acts against whites were sometimes killed.
On November 17, 1900, the city of Chelsea’s Republican Committee met to receive nomination papers from several candidates vying for political offices. Deciding to run for Aldermen from Ward 4, Captain Williams filed nomination papers that evening, and when the offices were voted on Tuesday, December 11, he became the first African American elected to the Chelsea Board of Aldermen.
Captain Williams made a successful run for Aldermen-at-large two years later, on November 18, 1902, garnering 1,070 votes, and was reelected to that office on December 13, 1904. As Aldermen-at-large, he served on the committee of accounts. He remained in office until the Great Chelsea Fire of April 12, 1908, and provided crucial leadership during that chaotic period — opening the doors of his home and taking in many of the city’s black residents. As a result of the fire, the Massachusetts Legislature passed an act on May 28, 1908, placing Chelsea under a board of control, appointed by Governor Curtis Guild, until the year 1912.
In July of 1908, Governor Guild also appointed Captain Williams as one of five public administrators, making him eligible to administer the estates of deceased persons who had no executor or administrator.
On December 12, 1911, Captain Williams ran for Aldermen from Ward 4 again and defeated Duncan Henderson. He was reelected the following year, beating Charles E. Cook. The lawyer was subsequently selected to serve two consecutive two-year terms as Aldermen-at-large. He held that office until the year 1919.
Captain William J. Williams died on October 11, 1924, leaving behind his two sons and his daughter. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.