Lucinda Anneford Winifred Williams nee Lucy Gamble (1875-1956) was the first African American teacher in the Omaha school district. Later the wife of a successful Episcopal minister, she was also the mother of three children. Lucy was a dedicated church leader and community leader throughout North Omaha. This is a biography of her life.
Lucy’s parents, William and Evaline Gamble, were married in Lincoln in 1873 from Mobile, Alabama. William R. Gamble (c 1850-1910) was a former slave who became a barber and Civil Rights leader in Omaha. He was involved in organizing the Nebraska State Colored Men’s Conference to rally against lynching, and was a union organizer for barbers. He and his wife had eight children, with Lucy being the oldest. She was born in Lincoln in 1875, and her family moved to Omaha in 1880.
As a child, starting in 1885 Lucy attended the Dodge School before transferring. Originally called East School, the Dodge School was on the southwest corner of 11th and Dodge Streets when it opened in 1876. The area around the school was called the Burnt District and one of Omaha’s original segregated neighborhoods. Lucy left Dodge School and graduated from the Pacific School at South 6th and Pacific Avenue in June 1889.
In June 1893, Lucy graduated from Omaha High School as one of the two African Americans who’d done that ever. At that time, the Omaha Public Schools ran their own teacher training program called the Omaha Normal School, and even though her high school teachers discouraged her from going, she graduated there in June 1895.
Lucy Gamble became the first African American teacher in Omaha in 1895 when she was hired to teach at Dodge School. When the Dodge School closed in 1898, she transferred to Cass School at 1418 Cass Street in today’s North Downtown neighborhood. The Cass School was had predominantly white students. She stayed there for three years before getting married.
In Omaha in 1901, there was a tradition that classroom teachers must be single and leave the professional when they got married. Lucy followed tradition and left the classroom when she got married. However, when she was married in June 1901, the Omaha World-Herald was sure to mention that the entire teacher corps from Cass School attended to celebrate their comrade’s wedding.
During the 1930s, she was an adult education teacher for Omaha Public Schools, teaching at the Urban League Community Center in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building. She also taught classes at the North Side YWCA until the early 1940s.
Mrs. Williams was strongly committed to her church and community, donating thousands of hours throughout her life to improve the places she cared about most. Involved in many activities focused on improving Omaha’s African American community, the neighborhood around her, and Omaha as a whole, they included serving as chairman of the North Side YWCA; serving as secretary of the Omaha NAACP; chairing the board of directors for the Colored Old Folks Home; serving on the board of directors for the Omaha Community Chest; leading special citywide arts committees, and more.
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
Young Lucy’s family attended the mission church that became St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church as soon as they arrived in Omaha in 1880. Her father was an usher there for more than a decade.
When a new, handsome 25-year-old minister from Michigan arrived in 1891, Mr. and Mrs. Gamble surely weren’t expecting their 16-year-old daughter to marry him. However, after her 6-year teaching career from 1895 to 1901, it must have seemed like the right time. At age 26, Miss Lucy Gamble married the minister of St. Philip’s, Rev. John Albert Williams. With her as the first African American teacher in Omaha and and him as an ambitious religious leader, the young couple was already important to the entire city. On June 27, 1901, the Omaha World-Herald covered their wedding with a full-column description including details about lavish decorations, huge number of attendees (300+) and the couple’s honeymoon plans to visit Illinois.
As the minister’s wife, there were certain expectations for Mrs. Williams at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Starting in 1901, she was a delegate from St. Philip’s to the annual council of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. Mrs. Williams supported her husband’s ministry in countless ways, playing the organ at church from 1901 until the late 1940s, leading the choir successfully for several decades, and teaching Sunday School. When her husband died in 1933, she kept attending and stayed involved.
At St. Philip’s 75th anniversary celebration, Mrs. Williams was presented with flowers by Judge Elizabeth Pittman and recognized for her 50 year’ membership with the congregation. Mrs. Williams lived to become the oldest and longest member of St. Philip’s.
In the late 1890s, North Omaha was emerging as a social force for the entire city. African Americans began organizing in earnest to develop empowering social activities that would affect the entire culture they lived within. That’s probably what led the young Lucy Gamble to join the North Omaha Women’s Educational Society, where she provided an important if young voice. By the turn of the century, she also became a prominent member of community leader Ella Mahammitt’s Omaha Colored Women’s Club. Miss Gamble also wrote for Ella Mahammit’s The Enterprise, one of Omaha’s early Black newspapers.
From the 1930s through the late 1940s, Mrs. Williams served as the chairman of the board of Omaha’s Negro Old Folks Home. Honoring her husband’s legacy as founder of Omaha’s NAACP after he died, she was on the board of Omaha’s chapter in the 1930s and 40s. In 1948, Mrs. Williams was appointed to governing board of the Omaha Community Chest. Starting in 1927, she also served on the board of the segregated Near North Side YWCA through the 1940s. She was president of that board for several terms.
Mrs. Williams’ father, who was a noted Civil Rights activist in Omaha, died in 1910 in St. Paul. 23 years later, her husband died of a heart attack on Saturday afternoon, February 4, 1933.
Living in the church rectory at 1119 North 21st Street from 1901 to 1948, Mrs. Williams raised children, held social activities, hosted special guests and did much more at her home.
Rev. and Mrs. Williams had one son and two daughters. Their first child was Dorothy E. was born on October 26, 1902. Notably active in the church and throughout the community, Dorothy made history in Omaha by becoming the first black graduate of the University of Omaha in 1924. Dorothy married —– Isaac and lived in Tulsa, working as a librarian for several years. She died on October 8, 1963.
Their son Worthington L. was born in 1905. He lived around Omaha and worked a variety of labor and professional jobs throughout his life. Around 1935, he moved to Baltimore to work for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. However, after a long illness, Worthington came back to North Omaha and died in the city at age 39 in 1944.
Their daughter Catherine E. was born in April 1912. She married Arnold D. Walker in 1935, and the couple moved to Cincinnati. I haven’t found more information about her life yet.
After her husband died in 1933, Mrs. Williams moved to live with her son Worthington in his home at 2416 Miami Street. When he moved away she stayed at the address, and lived there until he died. She then lived with her daughters, first with Catherine in Cincinnati, then with Dorothy in Tulsa.
In 1948, Mrs. Williams’ longtime home, the St. Philips rectory, was physically moved from North 21st to 2712 Franklin Street as part of the Near North Side redevelopment plan. Apparently it was demolished with the development of Highway 75 though, and there’s no sign of it today. The church was demolished in that same era, and today there’s no historical marker, signage or other physical record of Mrs. Williams’ lifelong home at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
There are conflicting reports of where Mrs. Williams died on August 26, 1956. The Omaha Star reported that it happened at her daughter Dorothy’s home in Tulsa, while the Omaha World-Herald claimed it happened at their daughter Catherine’s home in Cincinnati.
Rev. Williams and Mrs. Williams are buried in Forest Lawn.
You Might Like…
- A Biography of Rev. John Albert Williams
- A History of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church
- A History of the Colored Old Folks Home
- 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.