Fred Williams, steeped in local black history, dies at 86
By Donna O'Neil, Managing Editor
When Fred Douglas Williams was young, he would often walk to the Franklin Theatre with his friends, but he wasn’t allowed to sit with them. Back in those days – late 1930s and early 1940s – his white friends would occupy seats on the ground level and Williams, a black boy from Franklin, had to take his seat in the balcony. After the movie ended he would rejoin his friends to walk home.
Raised locally, his upbringing and his family’s history are worthy of a place front and center in Franklin’s local history.
His grandfather, A.N.C. Williams owned a general store on Main Street in Franklin and was one of the city’s first black merchants. The store opened in 1858 – before the Civil War and six years before the Battle of Franklin – an event which will mark a 150th anniversary next year.
At the age of 86, the former Franklin resident, Fred Williams, died Dec. 28, 2012 in Memphis where he had gone to live with his only daughter Cassandra, her husband Wilbert Taylor and their family.
Fred Williams was born in a home on Second Avenue and Church Street, currently the Village Realty office in Franklin. He resided there until the death of his wife Mattie in 2009. The house was known as the Green House – not after a family that resided there, but mostly for the color of the house, according to Thelma Battle, note black historian and author of “Raining in the House and Leaking Outdoors,” an African-American cultural history and photographic presentation of 100 Franklin, Williamson County, Tenn. women over the age of 65. Battle and current city alderman Pearl Bransford were instrumental in keeping the property from being torn down years ago. Today an historical marker stands in front of the property due to their efforts.
Williams’ parents Ostrander Bruce Williams and Willie House Williams raised their children in the home that was a welcome site for black traveling salesman and family friends. The Williams provided room and board to travelers at the Green House throughout Fred’s childhood.
In the 1930s Williams used to perform at minstrel shows with his maternal uncle J.D. House. In a news article published in 2003, Williams recalled those days stating, “My uncle J.D. House was a fine musician. He could play any kind of instrument that was made back then. My uncle J.D. and a white man named Robert Lunn (famous for the Grand Ole Opry blackened face comedy) produced minstrel shows in Franklin in the 1930s. Robert Lunn was famous for ‘talking blues.’ It’s what these young boys around here now call ‘rapping.’”
While attending Franklin Training School, a school for blacks in Franklin, Williams was the captain of the school’s football team. The school was so small, said Battle, that during halftime shows “Mr. Fred would march with the band in his football uniform while the other band members had their band uniforms on. He was an excellent musician. He played trumpet.”
She explained that he was also in a band called the Patten Leather Kids in the 1930s and 1940s. The band played gigs at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville and several country clubs in the area. “This was before integration,” she said. “[Band members] entered through the front doors in swanky establishments when they played because they were in a top-notch band.”
Williams was also a member of the first black Boy Scout troop in Franklin – Troop No. 48 Established in the 1930s, according to Battle, the troop disbanded in the 1950s. Among his troopmates were Brooks Fleming, Charles “Boolum” Miller, Sam Isaac Baugh, Calvin Douglas, Big Tom and James Jones, Ernest Evans Jr., Robert Reese and David McLemore Sr.
“The boys used to hike out Columbia Pike,” said Battle, recalling a story told to her by Williams. “It was a seven-mile overnight hike. They stayed in an Antebellum house and Mr. Fed would tell stories of seeing blood stains on the floor of the home where someone was injured during the Civil War.”
In 1941 Williams became the troop leader for Troop 48. He was followed in the role by Thomas Holt and John “Big John” Murphy, who currently lives in Franklin’s Hard Bargain neighborhood.
Cassandra Taylor, Williams’ daughter, recalled her father’s fondness for antiques and restoration in a phone interview with the Williamson Herald earlier this week. “He would find old things, fix them and put them back together and they looked like a million dollars,” she said. “I remember asking my mother if they ever bought anything new and she said she remembered one time when they bought a Lillian Russell bedroom suite.”
“He loved the Civil War and stories about that time, artifacts and antique guns,” she said. Taylor mention the time her dad taught himself photography from a heavy box press camera that he purchased at an auction. “He was the unofficial photographer for an African American newspaper in the Franklin-Nashville area,” she said. “He loved talking wedding pictures.”
She recalled the home-based dark room her father had in their home when she was a child. “There was a red light at the door to show he was developing. There were all those chemicals and I remember images hanging up on a big line like you see on TV.”
“I remember Mother told me when I was young, I thought my Daddy could do anything,” Taylor said. “When I was two or three in the crib, I broke a 45 record. When Mother asked me why, I told her Daddy can fix anything. I though my Daddy could do anything.”
A memorial service was held at Beulah Baptist Church on Jan. 2. Arrangements were by Waters Funeral Home, Inc. 1408 Columbia Ave. in Franklin.
Posted on: 1/3/2013