A church minister, newspaper editor, NAACP leader, community activist, and family man, the Rev. John Albert Williams (1866-1933) was a singular leader in a simpler time who faced complex problems and made North Omaha a better place. He was widely recognized in North Omaha, in the Episcopal Church and among his family; however, today his name is nearly lost to Omaha history. This is a biography of his life.
Born in London, Ontario, Canada on February 28, 1866, John Albert Williams was one of nine children of a freed man from Virginia named Henry Williams and an African-Quebecois mother named Adeline D’Or Williams (1831-1910). London was the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, and Henry Williams was a leader within his local community. His mother spoke French as a first language.
When his family moved to Detroit, they attended the church of Father George Worthington. John graduated from Detroit High School and the Detroit Church Academy.
In the late 1880s, Williams went to Seabury Western Theological Seminary in Minnesota to earn his Masters in Divinity. He graduated in June 1891. That month, at then-Bishop Worthington’s offer, Williams came to Omaha to serve St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. When he became a minister, Rev. Williams mother moved to Omaha to live with him. She died in 1910.
Rev. Williams married Lucinda Winifred Gamble, the first African American teacher in the Omaha Public Schools, in June 1901. When she married him, she followed the then-custom of resigning her position with the schools, as all teachers were single then.
An Episcopal Minister
An influential minister, Rev. Williams had an exceptionally long career of 41 years and was widely admired for his leadership. His career was determined in his early 20s.
Bishop Worthington’s Trinity Cathedral tried organizing a segregated congregation in 1878, and re-opened in 1887. But the worshipers died down to just 17 people in 1890 and the mission was near closing. Originally serving at Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church, Rector Williams was ordained as a minister by Bishop Worthington at St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church in Omaha in early June 1891.
On June 12, 1891, he started preaching at St. Philip’s Mission Church, a segregated mission church for African Americans in the Near North Side. It was housed in the original building for the Trinity Cathedral, which was moved to the site from downtown Omaha. Nearly closed in 1891, Rev. Williams was tasked by Bishop Worthington with rebuilding the congregation. By 1893, there were 40 regular members, and Mrs. Amelia Worthington, the Bishop’s wife, donated money for a new St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church to be constructed. It was located near North 21st and Paul Streets, the church’s address was 1121 North 21st Street. Designed in an English Saxon revival style, the congregation was re-designated from a mission to a church in 1926. Father Williams was named a Rector then.
Successes as a Minister
Rector Williams’ career as a minister was very successful, and he became locally important and nationally known in his early career. For instance, in 1916 the Baltimore-based The Church Advocate magazine wrote a page-long feature about Rev. Williams, highlighting his influence and abilities. During his career at St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church, the congregation became renowned as the “overwhelming majority of aristocrats of color” in Omaha. He was elected assistant secretary of Nebraska diocese in 1892. Washington DC’s St. Luke Episcopal Church invited him to be their minister in 1895 and again in 1904. The Nebraska diocese appointed him historian in 1906, and in 1909 he was named associate editor of the state’s Episcopal newspaper. In 1910 he was named an examining chaplain of the diocese.
Recognized in national Episcopalian media, in 1914 he was named one of the most well-known priests in the country. In May 1918, Rev. Williams published “Diocesan History, An Historical Sketch of The Associate Mission of Omaha” in The Journal of Proceedings of the Diocese of Nebraska.
Rector Williams was nominated to become the bishop of Haiti in 1922, but he stayed in Omaha. A Latin and Greek scholar, Rev. Williams tutored Creighton University students for decades. Seabury granted Rev. Williams an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by Seabury, his alma mater, in 1929. That year he entered into an honor society of Episcopalian ministers called the Order of the Sangreal. One of the few recipients to ever receive this honor, Rector Williams was the only one in Omaha history to receive it.
Rev. Dr. Williams was the rector of St. Philip’s until he died in 1933. In 1949, the congregation relocated to a new building at 2532 Binney Street, and Kellom School was built near its old location. The original church was demolished then. In 1986, St. Philip’s joined another congregation in North Omaha to integrate congregations. They launched the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, which is still open at North 30th and Belevedre Boulevard today.
Committed to Community Activism
Deeply committed to integration and fighting against Southern Jim Crow in Omaha, Rev. Dr. Williams was active from his earliest years in the city as a community organizer, vocal advocate and powerful leader. His greatest legacies in North Omaha include political action that moved mountains; establishing the only and longest running Black newspaper in Omaha for several years; and founding Omaha’s NAACP chapter.
As part of his advocacy, Williams was an active letter writer throughout his life who was also an editorialist. Although he was frequently on-point and focused, he occasionally let his feelings show. For instance, this passage is from an 1898 letter to the Omaha World-Herald, where he railed against white supremacy and the hatred facing African Americans who sought equality in the United States:
He may cook or cater for us; he may preside, “in his own place,” with grace, in exquisite evening dress, at our social feasts without alarming our social instincts one smallest particle; he may go anywhere, be anything in service or friendship, and we feel no repugnance; he may storm the blood-stained heights of the battle-crested Morros of Santiago as bravely as the bravest, and we feel no sense of presumption on his part in the nearness of his approach to us white men. But if he presumes to wear, or to ask for shoulder straps of a lieutenant, or if he dares to sit at a lunch counter with us white men, or if he dares ask for a soda at the same fountain with us, then our proud blood is up, and the negro must be taught to keep his own place.—Omaha World-Herald, July 24, 1898.
The intellectual rational in his rhetoric was clearly in action throughout his life, too.
Rev. Williams became the first African American nominated for the Omaha School Board in January 1897. He wasn’t appointed though.
Rev. Williams was involved in founding Omaha’s Anti-Lynching League in December 1894, and was president while it was active. Ida B. Wells visited Omaha under his leadership. Frequently quoted in local newspapers, he was a calming voice for the African American community. He was also a member of Omaha’s Afro-American League, and served as secretary of the Negro Press Association in 1898. Nebraska Governor Holcomb had a high degree of respect for Rev. Williams, and in 1897 he asked for a list of candidates to be part of a “Congress of Representative White and Colored Americans” during the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. After his nominations, Silas Robbins, Dr. Matthew O. Ricketts, Cyrus Bell, Rev J. C. C. Owens of St. John’s AME, and others were appointed. Meeting from August 17 to 19, the group wanted to start an association that would show biracial support for civil rights. In January 1900, he served on the organizing committee for a visit to Omaha by Booker T. Washington.
In 1901, Rev. Williams took a complaint to the school board against Ivy Reed, an 8th grade teacher at Cass School. Backed by Silas Robbins, George Dolliver and ten other African Americans, they charged Miss Reed with making discriminatory comments about African Americans during a classroom conversation about slavery. I cannot find what happened because of the complaint though.
Starting in 1906, he was the leader of the Progressive League of Douglas County, which was founded by African Americans to get Black people elected to local public offices. In that role he supported several candidates including Millard Singleton and others. Rev. Williams partnered with several Black community leaders regularly. For instance, he joined with Vic Walker and Henry Plummer to protest the demotion of black fire patrol captains in 1911. Throughout the years, some of the other community leaders he worked with included Ella Mahammitt, Edwin R. Overall, Cyrus Bell, Ferdinand Barnett, George F. Franklin, Lucille Skaggs Edwards, William Gamble and John Grant Pegg.
When the Easter Sunday tornado struck the Near North Side neighborhood in March 1913, Rev. Williams joined the citywide tornado relief committee as the only African American member.
During World War One, Rev. Williams led Omaha’s African American community in greeting Black soldiers who came through Union Station on the way to the war. Several times he rallied large crowds to greet the troops, who rode on segregated trains.
Rev. Williams had an interesting opponent when he ran to join the Omaha School Board in 1924. In a surprise move, his friend and fellow African American minister Rev. Russell Taylor threw in his hat for a seat on the Omaha School Board. Running as a progressive, Rev. Taylor was the minister at St. Paul Presbyterian Church, and a longtime friend of Rev. Williams. They were good friends: Rev. Williams officiated at Rev. Taylor’s wedding, and their families had regular Sunday dinners every week. Surprising Rev. Williams with his run, Rev. Taylor actually secured the endorsement of the president of the NAACP over Rev. Williams! With 32 other candidates on the ballot though, both men lost their run for office. The families went on with their friendship though, and kept having Sunday dinners together.
Rev. Williams was the first African American to serve on the governing board for the Omaha Community Chest starting in 1924. He stayed on the board for almost a decade. He was also on member of the board of Omaha’s Urban League.
The Only Black Newspaper
When he was a kid, John Albert Williams was a newsboy in Detroit. That was his start in journalism.
After The Enterprise folded, in July 1915 Rev. Williams launched The Monitor to encourage his Black readers to take action and make Omaha a better city. His mission was put plainly in his first editorial, was to cover the activities of African Americans in Omaha and…
He began sharing his sermons in The Enterprise, an early Black newspaper in Omaha, in 1895. With other Black newspapers come and gone in the next 20 years, Williams founded The Monitor in 1915. Smaller in size and circulation than its competitors, The Monitor ran for 13 years and had the longest run of all Black newspapers in Omaha until the 1950s. There were many themes that Rev. Williams maintained in his paper, including uplifting African Americans, making whites question white supremacy, and encouraging the Black middle class to maintain and grow its ranks. Williams regularly supported Republican politics, but occasionally uplifted socialism.
Williams’ journalistic legacy was much more than sharing the news. Using the newspaper to recruit, he called on African Americans to move from the South to Omaha, and by 1920 Omaha’s African American population doubled. Starting with the launch of the paper in 1915, he also called on the city to become involved in the NAACP.
Promoting Black Emigration
Rev. John Albert Williams was partially responsible for doubling of Omaha’s Black population between 1910 and 1920. In 1910, there were over 4,400 African Americans in Omaha; in 1920, there were over 10,300 people making up 5 percent of the city’s population. According to the Omaha World-Herald, “Omaha had the second largest black population west of the Mississippi River behind Los Angeles.” Rev. Williams aggressively promoted Omaha to African Americans in the South, going so far as to provide travel vouchers, set up reception committees when people came to Omaha, and to connect African Americans to jobs throughout the city.
As part of this effort, in 1919 Rev. Williams joined Dan Desdunes, Thomas P. Mahammitt and several others to create Omaha’s Colored Commercial Club. Working together to guide the organization, Williams extended his vision to get African Americans hired into jobs citywide.
Omaha’s NAACP Chapter
Widely regarded as the father of Omaha’s NAACP, Rev. Williams was involved in the second start of the Omaha NAACP chapter in 1914, staying president for more than a decade. He remained active with the chapter until he died.
Rev. Williams’ activism included the NAACP as well as speaking to his congregation, writing in his newspaper and providing insight throughout the Omaha community. In 1916, he protested Jim Crow streetcars in Omaha and voted against Prohibition in an Episcopal church meeting. In 1919, he rallied Omahans to support the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and to oppose the City of Omaha’s attempt to segregate local swimming pools.
Using his platform as the NAACP leader, Rev. Williams made his words known citywide. Among the various ways he provided leadership after the 1919 lynching of Will Brown, Williams called out the city’s criminal underground by asserting the riot was caused by,
After leading St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church for a decade, in 1901 Rev. Williams married a longtime church member, Lucy Gamble. Miss Gamble was the first African American teacher in Omaha Public Schools, and her family was very active throughout North Omaha and at St. Philip’s.
John and Lucy Gamble Williams had three children including a son named Worthington Lewellyn Williams (1905-1944) and two daughters, Catherine Abagail Williams Walker (1912-2001) and Dorothy Elizabeth Williams Isaac (1902-1963). Dorothy become the first Black graduate of the University of Omaha in 1924.
His brother, Henry W. Williams (1869-1928), lived in Omaha too. Rev. Williams officiated at his funeral when he died at age 59.
Rev. Dr. Williams raised his family and spent the remainder of his life in the St. Philips Church parsonage at 1119 North 21st Street. At the end of his life, Rev. Dr. Williams suffered health problems including a minor stroke and cerebral hemorrhage in 1929 and a heart attack at age 66, dying on February 4, 1933. His funeral was held at Trinity Cathedral.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Williams stayed active in the church and throughout the community. She joined the board of the local NAACP chapter, led the board of the Colored Old Folks Home, and stayed involved in the church until she passed away in 1956.
Rev. Dr. Williams and Mrs. Williams are buried in Forest Lawn.
You Might Like…
- A History of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church in North Omaha
- A Biography of Lucinda Williams, nee Lucy Gamble
- A History of Community Leaders in North Omaha
- Works Progress Administration interview with Mrs. John Albert Williams, aka Lucy Williams. (November 28, 1938) from the US Library of Congress.
- “John Albert Williams and Black Journalism in Omaha, 1895-1929” by D. G. Paz on pages 14-32 in the Midwest Review 10 in 1988.
- “The Kingdom of Heaven at Hand”: Rev. Russel Taylor and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1920s Omaha” by Todd Guenther for Nebraska History (2011)
- “Creating the color line and confronting Jim Crow: Civil rights in middle America: 1850-1900” by David J. Pealer for the University of Kansas (2008)
- “The Associate Mission: An Experimental Ministry of the Episcopal Church in Omaha, 1891-1902” by James C Ransom in Nebraska History 61(4), 447-466.
- “A history of the Episcopal Church in Omaha from 1856 to 1964” by James M. Robbins Jr. for the University of Nebraska (1965)
- “Our Story: A diverse family united by God,” Church of the Resurrection official website. St. Philip’s was eventually merged with another church to form this new congregation.