An Oral History

With

Tommie Lee Williams Sr.













Interviewer: Donald Williams













Tougaloo College Archives





















This interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation Project.

Funding for this project was provided in part by the Mississippi

Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and

the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.



1999

Biography



Mr. Tommie Lee Williams Sr. was born January 6, 1926, in the southern end of Vicksburg, Mississippi. His parents were George Cesar and Josie Carter Williams. He had four older brothers and a younger sister. Tommie attended Magnolia High School, which included the first through the sixth grades. Due to his chronic illness, Mr. Lee was taken out of school; he completed the sixth grade.



Mr. Williams entered the armed forces in 1944 and stayed two and one-half years, achieving the rank of T-5 Corporal in the Division of the Signal Corps, a part of the Buffalo Unit which no longer exists. Upon honorable discharge, he went to Alcorn College and took up the trade of plumbing. Upon completion of his trade in 1947, he met and married Frances Pearline Miller on September 7, 1948. Mrs. Williams is currently a retired registered nurse. They have been married fifty-one years, and they have five children: Yvonne Williams Friday, M.S., an assistant principal at Worthing High School in Houston, Texas; Adena Williams Loston, Ph.D., president of San Jacinto College South in Houston, Texas; Ret. LTC Tommie L. Williams Jr., M.S., working for Computer Service in Germany; Perla Williams Lemon, lead teacher, Cummings Elementary School in Houston, Texas; and Robert T. Williams, who is both a statistician with the Department of Commerce in Suitland, Maryland and a freelance photographer.



Mr. Williams has eleven grandchildren, two of whom have finished college. One is a pharmacist; one is a computer specialist; and one has received his Eagle Scout Badge at age fifteen. Mr. Williams has one great-grandchild.



Since April of 1967, Mr. Williams has been blind. After retiring from his plumbing business, he founded We Care Community Services, Inc., where he works as an unpaid staff person. We Care Community Services, Inc., is a non-profit 501c3 social services organization. Its main focus is to teach and train those in need of specialized services, to alleviate stressful and crisis situations. Some of those services are: emergency services, GED classes, after school tutoring, summer enrichment, clothes closet (free clothing), adult literacy, immunization outreach, home visiting, payee services through the social security, housing counseling, food pantry, and thrift store. This is done through the assistance of an able administrator and competent staff, governed by a board of directors and advisory board.



In 1994 Mr. Williams was chosen to receive the Caring Award from The Caring Institute in Washington, D.C., for being one of the most caring people in America. He was recognized July, 1999, by Channel 12, WJTV, as being a Hometown Hero, Project Find, WWISCAA, WAMIT, United to Serve America 1992 Diamond Award, AKA State award, and the Omicron Rho Lambda Fraternity Community Service Award in January 1998. He is a member of Holly Grove M.B. Church and serves as a deacon.

Table of Contents



Working in Las Vegas defense plant 2

World War II service 3

Concerned Citizens 6

Registering to vote 6

Voter's League 8

COFO workers 8

Harassment 9

First impressions of racial conflict as a child 15

Door-to-door canvassing for school integration 16

Integration of public school 18

Boycott 21

AN ORAL HISTORY



WITH



TOMMIE LEE WILLIAMS SR.



This is an interview for the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with Mr. Tommie Lee Williams Sr. and is taking place on August 20, 1999. The interviewer is Don Williams.



Don Williams: I'm in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today is August 20. It's Friday, and I'm at We Care [Community Services, Inc.,] and I'm going to interview Tommie Williams Sr. Today is August 20, 1999. I think what we'll do, Mr. Williams, is talk in a very informal kind of way. And I just want to ask you some questions about your background, first.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: That's Tommie Lee Williams Sr., now. You can't just call me Lee.



Don Williams: OK. Tommie Lee Williams Sr. OK. T-O-M-M-Y, Lee.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: T-O-M-M-I-E.



Don Williams: I-E. OK. Lee Williams Sr.



(A segment regarding scheduling of the interview is not included in this typed transcript.)



Don Williams: Now, you were born where?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Here in Vicksburg.



Don Williams: And, when were you born?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I was born January 6, 1926.



Don Williams: Have you ever lived outside of Vicksburg?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Twice. I worked out from Las Vegas, when I was seventeen, and I went into the armed service. That's it. Cut that (coughing.)



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Don Williams: OK. So, in 1943, you went to Las Vegas, and you worked where now?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: In Las Vegas--.



Don Williams: He's getting ready to hand you something, Ms. Williams.



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Don Williams: OK. So, 1943, am I correct, you went to Las Vegas?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Right.



Don Williams: And what did you do when you were in Las Vegas?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I worked in a defense plant where they was making different things for the Army.



Don Williams: What kind of things were they making? Do you remember?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, they was making shells and things of that nature.



Don Williams: Are you talking about bombs and stuff like that?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I think. I'm not sure. I don't know what it was because all I was doing was working, hauling trash out from about five floors. They had chutes where it would come all the way down, and I would back a trailer up under there and someone would disconnect the trailer while I would go get a full trailer and take it out on the dump.



Don Williams: Oh, I see.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Then someone would disconnect that trailer. Well, they would empty, and then I would just transfer those trailers around to haul the trash out.



Don Williams: OK. Then, that's the first time that you left Vicksburg. How long did you stay in Las Vegas at that time?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, I would say about six months. At this point, I really don't remember.



Don Williams: OK. When did you go in the service?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I went in the service in forty-four. I went in on April 1, and I was sworn in April 3.



Don Williams: And what branch of service were you in?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I was in the Signal Corps. We were stationed just behind the [front] line, but we were [running] communications lines.



Don Williams: OK, and what theater were you located in?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: In the European.



Don Williams: OK. So, from 1944, when did you get out the service?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I'm not sure exactly what day, but I stayed in for about two years and six months.



Don Williams: OK, so you got out in 1946.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yes.



Don Williams: Or forty-seven. Nineteen forty-six?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Forty-six.



Don Williams: OK. I imagine that the Army was segregated at that particular time?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I didn't understand you.



Don Williams: Was the Army, it was segregated at that particular time?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, yeah.



Don Williams: What kind of unit were you in?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I was in the Ninety-second, with the Ninety-second Battalion of [the] Army.



Don Williams: OK. Was it the Ninety-second Army Signal Battalion or Division?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Signal Corps. I was--. See each battalion had different branches. They had a service branch, signal corps, and then they had different branches to where, they had all the branches they needed for to be in that part of the Army. And I think they had a big buffalo [insignia] that was put on your sleeve, I believe, if I remember correctly.



Don Williams: What rank did you obtain while you were in the service?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: What branch?



Don Williams: What rank? Did you make E-6, E-7, or sergeant?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I made a T-5 [a corporal.]



Don Williams: Tech sergeant, T-sergeant?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yes. They wanted to [promote] me. I would have been promoted to a Buck-sergeant, if I would have [agreed to] stay in, but I just came on out. Because that was the first time I really had been away from home that long. [I also became ill while there and had to have an emergency appendectomy that caused complications.]



Don Williams: How did you go from Vicksburg to Las Vegas? How'd that happen?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, it was some older guys, they were eighteen, nineteen, maybe twenty years old, and they went out there to work, and we were friends. We grew up in the same neighborhood, so they sent me my fare to come out there. And the strange thing about it: you know, I had put my age up to eighteen, but I didn't have to show no proof of me being eighteen, and when the Army found out that I was out there at eighteen, they wanted to put me in the Army. So that's when I came home. And after I got home,

[my mother had to show proof that I was only seventeen. I began working in Vicksburg for a company that] was making shell boxes, to hold the little shells. [I became eighteen,] so they wanted to get me deferred, but I wouldn't let them.



Don Williams: OK. So you just--.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I'd rather go on to the Army because back then it was so prejudiced. I noticed some of the guys that they was getting deferred, specially if they was Army age, mostly they were a lot of older men working there, but if you was in the age of going to the Army, they would tell you, "Mess with me, nigger, I'll just have you put on in the Army. Send you on to the Army." Because, see, they could get them deferred for a short while because they needed those shell boxes, too, but they did have the authority to report you or lay you off, and then you'd have to go on into the armed services [anyway.] Because they were drafting at that time.



Don Williams: OK. What church did you attend during the forties, fifties, sixties?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, I joined the Holly Grove Missionary Baptist Church. That was in [1938.]



Don Williams: Is that church still in existence?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, yeah.



Don Williams: Are you still a member?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, yes. I'm a deacon there.



Don Williams: Nineteen thirty-eight.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Listen, now wait. Let me get this straight. I joined when I was twelve years old, so that made me, if I was born in twenty-six, it was thirty-eight. And I was baptized in a bayou, then; they didn't have pools in the church. They'd go down and dam the bayou, [or] the little creek, up, probably that Thursday [so they would have enough water,] and then they'd baptize you that Saturday.



Don Williams: OK. What school did you attend here in Vicksburg?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, I went to, it was Magnolia School then, and I only finished the sixth grade. I was always bothered with [my stomach.] Well, first I had my tonsils taken out. They gave me a lot of trouble. I was bothered with my side, my appendix, and the doctors at the Kuhn State Hospital said that I had what you call a nervous stomach, and it just always bothered me. But they never did take my appendix out. They would always tell me not to eat any berries [or anything that] had seeds in it. When I went in the Army, back in forty-four, they operated on me for my appendix. They took them out on the third, the same day that I was sworn in. That place never did get straightened. It always [gave me problems.] Well, fact about it, I never did go through any basic training. The only thing I did go through in basic training [was] I threw hand grenades twice [and shot] an air rifle.



Don Williams: Could you hold on for one second?



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Don Williams: OK, so, you were saying you were shooting an air rifle?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yeah, an air rifle. And then they had what you called an 03. I shot that out on the range, and I walked guard, twice, but in walking guard, it [was] maybe six hours or something because I always had problems with my side. It always would hurt, even after my appendix was taken out.



Don Williams: Where were you stationed at?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Camp Crowder[?], Joplin, Missouri. That's where I was supposed to take my training at. I stayed in the hospital for a long, long time, and so, when I did come out, I [only had a] little training. [My company was then ready for going overseas,] but I had a choice. I could either stay in the service [with my company or] I could have [gone] with another company and be trained. [I decided to] go on with my company. Because I knew everybody in my company and everybody liked me there. And so, I'd rather stay on with guys that I had been with for about five and a half or six months. I just [took] a furlough and came home, then I went back, and we went overseas.



Don Williams: OK. Let me get back to Vicksburg and the civil rights movement, now. What organizations do you think were important during the fifties, sixties, and seventies, in the civil rights movement here in Vicksburg?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I think the Concerned Citizens. That was an organization that was formed to [ensure justice in Vicksburg.] A boycott was put on because there was a fifty-six-year-old white man [who] had molested a little six-year-old black girl, and they didn't do anything to him, so it was a boycott that was formed during that time to picket the merchants downtown and the main stores. So, it was real successful, because I feel that that's the reason there's a lot of black physicians, [bank tellers, secretaries, and promotions of blacks into the mainstream of employment,] you know. It opened the door, like [we had never had.] During the boycott, [I was blind and] picketed a few times, with my little youngest son [who was my guide.] Well, Tommie Jr. [my oldest son] wanted to get out and carry a sign [when he was home from college.]



Don Williams: Do you remember what year this was?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: That was in seventy-two. I was blind at that time, and I would hold his hand, and let him get his little sign, and he'd walk up and down the street. It was amazing because I lost my eyesight in sixty-seven, April 29.



Don Williams: When did you first register to vote?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: When I was eighteen years old. I can't just offhand [remember the exact date.]



(The interview is interrupted by a ringing telephone.)



Don Williams: OK. Eighteen, so in 1944, you registered to vote.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: My mother got me registered to vote. And how she was able to do that because, I guess, through the white lady that she worked for, it was easy for me to get registered to vote. The only thing, you had to pay $2.00 poll tax to vote. And that $2.00 was hard to get ahold of, too, you know, extra.



Don Williams: Was your mother registered to vote, then?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, yes.



Don Williams: And how long had she been registered to vote?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I don't remember. She [saw] to all of her children, when they got eighteen years old, to be registered to vote, and she always told us to always vote Democrat. She would see to it until she died.



Don Williams: OK. Now, how many brothers and sisters did you have?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, let me see. Cut it off.



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Don Williams: How many brothers and sisters did you have?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: OK. Well, I had one adopted sister, legally adopted. And I had three brothers, half-brothers from my mother's side. And I had two brothers from my father's side. And I was the baby boy, out of the whole, you know, all of my brothers and sisters. But we was raised just like one family. I mean, it wasn't nobody to--. You could tell no difference of the mothers and fathers. Because my mother was good to my daddy's children. My daddy was good to my mother's children, and so you just couldn't tell no difference. Back in those days, it was much different than what it is now, because I remember one time we were just staying in a two-room house and then we moved into a three-room shotgun house. And we just slept together. And the girl, my sister would just jump over in the bed with all the boys, and we never had no incidents, like what you have going on now, the brothers and the different ones molesting the girls or trying to have sex with them. There wasn't no such thing as that. Your parents taught you. They trained you, and that's what you went by. I hear now, these days, about children, parents having guns in the house, and things. Well, my daddy had a pistol, he had a twenty-two rifle, and he had a shotgun, and they was right there behind the door, hanging up side the wall, you know. None of us bothered those guns or played with them. They said, "Don't bother them." And that's what they meant. You don't bother them. And that's the way it was. (Ringing telephone.) Excuse me. Cut it off.



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Don Williams: Get to rapping here. Ain't no big deal. Let's do this thing. OK. Now, the Concerned Citizens and the boycott, now were there any other organizations here that you think was important during this period from [the] fifties, sixties, or seventies in terms of the civil rights movement?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yes. They had what you called the [Deacons Alliance and the NAACP.] Cut it off.



Don Williams: You know, as you're thinking, it's still OK.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: The Voter's League organization. And that was very good, too. [It was headed by Mr. Frank Summers, who is dead now. Also Mr. Eddie Thomas, a local barber, worked with him. Mr. Summers] would get a booth put up in the courthouse, and people that wanted to would come up [and practice voting] there and they'd have [a sample ballot] where you vote for different ones. See, a lot of people didn't know how to use the voting machine. And his purpose was to show them how to use the voting machine, and that was very helpful. We would show them the right way or who to vote for. One thing that we had to learn and had to learn fast was that it was hard, because, see, some of our people could not read or write too good, and they started allowing people to go in to help them to vote for who they wanted to. But most times [some] of [the] whites would snatch them. And run in there and vote, [especially the older blacks.] They'd be trying to tell them who they wanted to vote for because they would have it marked on a piece of paper. And while they were trying to tell them, they'd be done hit those buttons and pull that lever [before they could tell them who they wanted to vote for.] It wasn't no fairness to it at all. COFO workers from up North came down here. They came down [and stayed to help us.] I let them come up to my house, [stay,] and work with my children. My [oldest] daughter had a little portable typewriter. She wanted to know, could she let them use it. And I told her yes. Well, they was in an old building down the street, and it was hot down there, so I told my daughter [to] just let them come on up to the house, and they could use the typewriter up there. Because I didn't want--. To tell the truth, I was just afraid to just let her take the typewriter and give it to some [strangers.] Well, these were white children.



Don Williams: And where were they from?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: [Different places up North.]



Don Williams: You said white kids?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yeah, these was white kids, you know.



Don Williams: And where were they from?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: The ones that was coming to my house was from up in New York and they come down to do volunteer work for registration and different things of that nature. And so, I just made them welcome. Anything that I had there in my freezer or refrigerator that could be cooked, I told them, the only thing, they would have to cook it and fix their own food, because my wife was working and I was working, also, but my children, they worked good together. I was really afraid, to tell the truth, because a couple of those white girls lived across town. Well, when they got through sometimes, it'd be ten, eleven, twelve o'clock or maybe later, and I had to take them home to where they lived at, and you can imagine me a black man, at that time, sitting up in there with some young white girls, you know. It was kind of touchy.



Don Williams: Did anybody ever stop you or talk to you during that time?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: No, no. Never did. Never did. Fact about it, I mean, to tell the truth, I never had any trouble, except a couple of times with problems with white people and segregation, because most of the white people here, by me being a good citizen and working and loved to work and worked for a lot of them, you know, they just never bothered me. But like I say, I had two or three run[-ins.] Well, I think I took them to be pretty serious run-ins with them. But, didn't nothing ever come out of that or from that.



Don Williams: Could you tell me a little bit about the run-ins?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I can tell you about them. Yeah.



Don Williams: Whip it on me. I'm going to stand up and stretch out a little bit, too, as you're talking.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, that's fine.



Don Williams: So, let's go to run-ins.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Anyway, I remember one morning I was already late going to work, and when I got to where I was carrying my wife to work at the Mercy Hospital, I had to make a turn there to get in there, to go to the hospital. So, there was a white guy that stepped out in front of me, you know. Just a little simple thing. Well, he had the right-of-way, but I could make a turn on the red light, and he just stepped out in front of me. So, he said to me, "Nigger," said, "you'll run over somebody, won't you?"



I said, "If you step your ass out there in front of me," I said, "I sure will!" Because I was already late for work and I had had some problems trying to get to what I was going to be doing that day. And so, I heard no more from the man.



So in about two days, when I turned to go up in my yard, my little children were just jumping up and down, "Daddy, the police [has] been out here for you. The police [has] been out here for you."



Well, I did plumbing work, so I went on in the yard, and I went on in the house, and I called down to the police station, and I asked them. I said, "I'm Tommie Lee Williams." I said, "I understand you've got a warrant for my arrest."



They said, "Yeah, we do." Said, "Where are you at?"



I said, "I'm at home."



He said, "Well, you stay there," said, "because we're going to send a car out there for you."



I said, "No, don't you send no car here to my house to arrest me," I said, "because I'll be right down there." I said, "My wife and children's here." I said, "I'll be right down there."



He said, "I told you to stay there, boy. You stay there, and we're going to pick you up."



I said, "Well, if you do send a car here," I said, "I won't be here. I'll be on my way to the police station." And so when I got down to the police station, I told them who I was, and they told me to dump my pockets. So, I did dump my pockets.



He said, "You're under arrest."



And, I said, "What do I do now?"



He said, "Well, you sit over there on that bench there until I can call a car and they carry you to jail."



I said, "Well, I've never been in jail before," I said, "and I don't want to go to jail." I said, "Can't I put up a bond, or something?"



He said, "Naw, you can't put up no bond, or nothing." Said, "You got to go to jail, tonight."



I said, "Naw." I said, "Wait a minute, now." I said, "I haven't ever been in jail."



He said, "Well, this is one night you're going to spend in jail."



So, I said, "Well, let me make a phone call." Well, this particular white man that I worked for, he was well-off. He told me if I stayed out of the ground, he'll keep me out of jail. So I always never abused that because I felt like that he was saying, you know, I could do what I want to do to blacks and he'd get me out of it, but I know if I messed with some white people, that I'd be wrong. That's the way I felt about it.



So, anyway, I called him and he told me, he said, "Where [are] you at?"



I said, "I'm up here at the police station."



He said, "What you doing up there?"



I said, "Well, I'm under arrest and they tell me that I got to go to jail tonight." And I said, "I don't want to go to jail."



He said, "Let me speak to whoever is up there on the desk."

And so I heard this man, this policeman say, "Yes, sir; no, sir; yes, sir; no, sir; I don't know, sir." And so when he got through talking to this white guy, the sergeant or whoever he was behind the police desk, he said to me, "You go on down to the store down there, and he wants you to come down there."



I said, "Well, don't I have to put up a bond or leave a deposit or something here with you?"



He said, "No, get on out of here." (Laughter.) So, I went on down there.



So, this, my friend told me, "Well, I tell you what," he said, "I thought that you had better sense than to cuss a white man." He said, "Did you cuss him?"



I said, "Yes, sir."



He said, "Did you tell him if he stepped his ass out there in front of my truck, that I'd run over him?"



I said, "Yes, sir. I cussed him."



He said, "Now, you got to meet court in the morning." He said, "You go on up there and meet court." Said, "Don't fail to be there." Say, "You be there." He said, "But the man that you was talking to," he said, "that man is just as powerful in Vicksburg as I am." Said, "He's the president of the bank up there." And so, I went on up there, and when they called my name, and so the judge asked me, you know, did I do that.



I said, "Yes, sir, I did."



And that time the guy that I had cursed, he told me, "Well, I tell you what." He said, "Judge, if you fine this boy anything," say, "don't fine him over a dollar. And, if he don't have it," he say, "I will pay that for him." So, that was, you know, one little incident. [He also said, "I wanted to teach this boy a lesson."]



And another incident, I was doing some plumbing work downtown--.



Don Williams: Can I ask you this? What was your boss's name then or the name of your company? Do you remember that?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Tommie Lee Williams Plumbing.



Don Williams: OK, and the white fellow that you called was who?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: That was Mr. Joe Gerache Sr.



Don Williams: OK, and the bank president was who? What was his name?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I don't remember his name. [John Raworth.]



Don Williams: Do you remember what bank it was?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: It was the Merchant's Bank.



Don Williams: The Merchant's Bank. OK. Do you remember what year this was?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, no.



Don Williams: Well, around what? Nineteen--? It was after the war, right?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, yes, because, see, I had been in the Army and had came out and I was, had started doing plumbing work.



Don Williams: OK. So, would you say it was the late forties or early fifties?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yes, I would say it was the very [early fifties.]



Don Williams: OK. Now, you were telling me your second incident.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, with the same guy, I had a job working downtown. Well, this guy was just my friend, because he had told me, you know, "You stay out of jail. I'll be there to go your bond, where you're safe." When I had--.



(End of tape one, side one. The interview continues on tape one, side two.)



Don Williams: OK.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: You don't get into trouble by using people's names?



Don Williams: No, no. This is a historical thing. You know, they wrote about Jesus Christ.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: OK.



Don Williams: No, this is a university. They don't bother universities about--.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: OK. I just asked the question.



Don Williams: No, this is oral history, and this is the way it is.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Let me tell you about this. I had ran all of the gas pipes, hooked them up, had my permit to do the plumbing work. And when I got through, I was up there and I was tying [into] what you call a union, the pipe coming one way from the heating unit, and the other pipe coming from the street where the meter is, and they have what you call a union, where all you have to do is just screw that union together and it hooks the two pipes together where the gas is going into the furnace. And so, the guy that contracted, that was doing all the work, a general contractor in the building [who had contracted the jobs] said to me, "Do you belong to the union?" I didn't know nothing about what a union was. (Laughter.) You understand what I'm saying? I just didn't know what a union was.



I said, "What [are] you talking about?"



He said, "You don't belong to the union?"



I said, "No, I don't belong to no union."



He said, "Well, you come down off of that ladder. You can't work here."



I said, "Well, all I've got to do is just give this thing a couple more turns and put my two wrenches on it, and tighten it up, and I'll be through. [And you can get my money."]



"Come down off the ladder." So, I came on down off the ladder, and I walked about four or five blocks [up the street] to Mr. Joe Gerache's drug store, and I told him what was going on. So, he looks over there. He gets his pistol. He puts it in his back pocket. [The handle] hanging out his back pocket, and we walk[ed] on down the street, talking. So, when I came on in, the guy was speaking to [Mr. Gerache,] and trying to talk to him. He had [had] me take all my tools and ladders out of the building.



So, Mr. Gerache told me, said, "What is it you need to do down here?"



I told him, I said, "I need to tighten that union up, up there."



He said, "Well, tell your boy to go out there and get your ladder and your wrenches and bring them in here to me."



So, this guy was trying to talk to Mr. Gerache [who] told him, [he] said, "Look," he said, "I don't have [a permit.] I'm not a plumber. I don't have no license. I don't belong to the union." He said, "I'm going to tighten that union up, up there." So, he went on and tightened the union up. This guy and Mr. Gerache went right across the street to Crowder's[?] [Smoke House.] They went on over there and drank coffee together. This shows you how things [were worked] out for you, [if you had someone white to speak for you.]



Now, another time Mr. Gerache helped me out. It was a guy [that] came from Florida [and] he was a big contractor, building houses, and doing a lot of different things. Well, he had got me in this particular house to put in a hot water tank, a kitchen sink, a three-piece bathroom suite, floor furnace, and everything. And, when I got through, I had a hard time catching up with him, but he gave me a check, and so I cashed the check, run it through the bank, and the bank [sent it back as] insufficient funds. So, after I ran it through the second time, they wouldn't take it back no more. So, I carried the check down to Mr. Gerache's, and told him what was happening. And a lot of the money that--. It was a pretty big-sized check, because a lot of it was for material and, for the rest of my labor, and to pay my men off.



Don Williams: How much was the check at the time?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: It was about [$4000.00,] I believe.



Don Williams: And what year was this?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: This was back in the, it had to be in the fifties, I think. It had to be along in the fifties.



Don Williams: So, at that time, that was a significant amount of money, then.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, you see material and stuff wasn't as high as it is now. And that's the reason the check wasn't so much, because I was just talking to somebody the other day where you buy a little half by three-eighths gas valve, that thing only cost thirty-five cents. Today it costs $7.00 and something. It's a big difference in your price. This check was around 4000 and something. But Mr. Gerache asked me where was the check.



I said, "I got it here."



He said, "Give it to me." So, he got the check and he called this company, the man [was] down in Florida, where the company was. He told him who he was. He said, "I tell you what I'm going to do." He said, "This boy has a family." He said, "He takes care of his wife and his children, and he's got his men to pay off. He [has] got the rest of the material to pay for." He said, "I'm going to cash this check, myself. Going to make it my business to give him his money, and I'm going to take this check and carry it to the bank, deposit it in my account." He said, "And this check better not come back to me. Not one time." Said, "Because if it do," said, "you're going to jail." I never heard no more from him.



Don Williams: Now, let me ask you this. When is the first time that you realized there was racial conflict here in Vicksburg? Your first impression.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I would say when I was a child. And the reason I say that is because, in going to school, the whites went to one school, and the blacks went to the other school. And my mother would always tell me, "If there are some white children, walking on the sidewalk, if they want to," like they used to do, "gang up, walk all over the sidewalk, you get between the sidewalk and the street where that grass is out there. And if they walk there and meddle with you, you get out in the street, just don't let the cars hit you." And I would wonder why. And I know I could go in Kress's and they had two fountains there. One said, "Colored." And one said, "White." And, you know, I was told not to drink out of that fountain. I wasn't old enough to know what was going on, but I knew I had a duty to do. I know with the city buses, my daddy used to buy these bus tokens where you would get two for a nickel. And sometimes when we had the money, we could ride, you know, on the bus, city bus. And you would put your money in the front door. You know, just step up on the bus and put your money in there, give it to the bus driver or put it in the little thing where the money go. And then you would back off, or turn around and come off the bus and go down the side of the bus and go on the back, [and] go in the back door. [Then] it was a long seat all the way across the back, and maybe two little seats on each side. And then it was a curtain between blacks and whites. And that's the way that it was a difference, but as I grew older--. See, I was taught, you know, that that was my responsibility. That was my duty to ride back there. That was my duty to teach and train my children. They weren't old enough [to understand.] But as you know, things changed, because [with] my children, [came] integration.



Another time that I had kind of a scary time was during integration. I went around and got people to say that they would sign up to send their children to white schools. I went to a lot of different people's houses from door-to-door, for blocks, and I never shall forget this. I know Hall's Ferry Road out there, where Hall's Ferry Road School is. A lady that lived on Hall's Ferry Road School, going south, [was] on the left-hand side. This lady lived [in] the second house on the left-hand side from the school. She promised that she would take her children down to Hall's Ferry Road School, in the morning the next day. And so, I got a call that night, and she told me, she said, "Mr. Williams, I told you that I was going to take my children down to the school," she said, "but I'm going to tell you the truth." [She] said, "I'm just damn scared! Will you go down there with me?" (Laughter.)



So, I said, "Well, now, I got to go." So, which I did, and it wasn't but just two doors from there, but what I did, I went by the house and got the lady in my truck and her two little children, and I went on down to the school. Well, they had long lines there, you know, where you could park between.



So, when I pulled up there, there was a policeman out there, and I know I was in between the lines, but when I pulled up to the next car, he told me, "Boy, you too close to that car. Back this thing up." So, I backed up, and he tells me, "It's too far back from the other car."



So, I said, "Sir, I tell you what, this lady come down here to register her children in school." I said, "Now, you give me time to get her out, let her get out so she can go on and register her children in school, and then I will put this truck wherever you want it, or either you can get in, and you can park it." And so, then he left me alone.



The lady had problems. I had to go around there. They didn't want her to come in the front door, had to go around to the back of the school, but she did get her children registered in. But in the meantime, while I was on the outside waiting for her to get the children registered in, I had walked on over to the edge of the parking lot, and I was just squatting down there, you know, marking in the dirt. So, here comes two white guys from over across the street that had, each one of them had a tire iron. And so, the policeman was standing not too far from me.



They said, "You got any garbage or trash that you need moved from over here." So, I didn't say anything because he wasn't, hadn't said nothing to me, but I figured that they was talking about me. Well, what happened is I had my pistol, and I had always made up in my mind that if a white person did something to me, [if] I knew that they was going to hang me or lynch me, and whoever did something to me, it was in my mind to kill that person. I wasn't going to do anything--. Back then, you see, you had a place, right or wrong, this, that, and the other, but I wasn't going to vex anybody, and I wasn't going to do anything to anybody. And that's just the way that my life has been, but that worked on out, alright. And just one thing to another one, back in those days, it goes back to something else. Because I remember I used to work for a man, it was a bunch of brothers, and he had me to [do a job for him.] He had a floor furnace and there wasn't nothing wrong with the thing. Sometimes the solenoid valve [would stick during] summer time, from, say like this through the summer, and all you'd have to do [is,] sometimes you might have to clean it, and then another time all you need to do is just take your pliers or the butt end of your screwdriver and tap it and start it to working, and it would go on and work.



Don Williams: OK.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: And when it was working, you know, that was fine. So, he had called me several times, and so finally I told my wife to tell him that I was working in Tallulah, Louisiana, which I was. So, one day, he called and so my wife told me he [had] called back.



I said, "Well listen," I say, "Tell him that I'll be sure to do it for him tomorrow." But he called me that night, and I had got in a little earlier that night because I finished up a little earlier than what I thought, and I had put on my little clothes, I was going to a revival at my church. And so he called.



My wife called [me] to the phone, and he said, "Nigger, what you going to do? You going to let my wife and children freeze to death?"



I say, "Who is this?" And he told me. I says, "What you mean?"



He say, "You haven't fixed my floor furnace."



And so, I say, "I told my wife to tell you I would get it tomorrow." I said, "I'll be sure to get it first thing in the morning."



He said, "No. You're going to do it now."



I said, "No, sir. I'm not going to do it tonight." I say, "I'm going out to Holly Grove Church."



He said, "No, you're going to do it now. You're going to do it tonight." So, he cursed me, and I cursed him. And he told me, "Nigger, I'll kill you about having my family cold." That morning, when the Mississippi Hardware opened, it was on Washington Street. I was there. I bought me a pistol, and I bought me a box of shells. And to show you how good God is to you: that morning I rode around his place of business--it was on the corner--I don't know, I guess six or seven times, with this pistol loaded, up under my children's diapers, because back during those days, see, I didn't use any Pampers on my five children. We used these Birdeye [and gauze] diapers, you know, where you had to wash them, and hang them up.



Don Williams: Yeah, I remember that.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: And that's all we ever had. So, it just happened, he didn't say anything, he went on about his business. So, I say, "Now, I ain't nothing but a fool. Here this man's out there working and he sees me passing by here. He ain't said nothing to me." So, I went on and went to work.



Don Williams: OK, now, let me ask you this. What about, you know, when you were at the school, you know Harper Ferry School.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Hall's Ferry.



Don Williams: Hall's Ferry, right, Hall's Ferry School. And the fellows came, the two white fellows came over with the tire irons and asked the police officer if there were some trash needed to be moved. How did that end up?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: They didn't say nothing to me, and I didn't say anything to them. That was the end of it. But I knew they was over there because they was kind of nodding and motioning at me. So, but see, back during those days, the police could have [said or done anything to me] and they would [have done] something to [me, and nothing would have happened to them.]



Don Williams: OK. Now, when they integrated the schools, who, kind of, handled that? The court decision came down and then the Vicksburg school system said, "We've got to integrate." What was the reaction of the black community then and what happened.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, they were all for it. Different people. Because [they wanted our children to be exposed to the same type of educational environment as the whites. My children went to three or four different schools. Up until the period of integration, our black children were given used books from the white schools.] I've got some children [that] went to about three or four different schools, to get through school [with books handed down from the white schools.]. Go maybe two or three grades in this school, and then the next school, and then they would change it, and that's just the way it went. It wasn't bad, because see, my children, like what my mother taught me to do to stay out of trouble from coming in contact with the white children on the sidewalk and things, see, I would take my children to school a lot of times in my truck, or I would go in and get them. But in most times, like you see a lot of little children today just running up and down the street and things like that, my children didn't do that. When my children got out of Cherry Street School, which is way across town, when they got out of school, they'd come out there to the sidewalk, they got on that sidewalk. They didn't cross over on the other side the street, for no reason. There were stores on the other side of the street, but they couldn't go across the street to one of those stores. And when I say--. I did not abuse my children or beat them or scar them up or anything like that, but they knew, when Daddy tells them something, that's it! And they respect me for it today. They would stay on that side of the street, and see, when you got out on Hall's Ferry Road, a lot of children cut through the bayou, go down Chambers Street, but my children stayed on Hall Ferry Road, they got to Lane Street, they taken a left. And they never crossed on the other side of the street until they got to Benbolia Street, which going down the hill, our house was on the right-hand side of the street. [Schools were integrated. Then reading became very important. Only white teachers taught it. The classes were upgraded. Maybe three to four blacks go [to] the top class. The next, maybe a few more. Then the lower class [was] all black except one or two whites. They had to be closely monitored. Finally, it worked out as the children came together.]



Don Williams: Now, did your kids ever have any trouble in the school with white--?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: I had one son that had trouble.



Don Williams: Can you tell me about that?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yes, they had several incidents, but I think this is a good one here because this boy, he got so he'd go to school, and he'd take with the stomachache.



Don Williams: Which son is that?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Oh, let me see.



Don Williams: What's his name?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Robert. Robert T. Williams.



Don Williams: The one that's a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: No. This one, he has a job working at the Commerce Department, up there in Washington, D.C. He's been there for about sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen years. But along with that, he has another job as a photographer, and he makes, I guess, more out of his photography work than he does on working for the Commerce Department, because they want to promote him up to some type position, but he won't take it, because, see, when you're working in management, what they do, you see, you have to work sometimes later at night. Whenever something goes wrong, you've got to fill in for the other people or you've got to be there.



Don Williams: Now, let me ask you this. Getting back to the problem that he had in school.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Go ahead.



Don Williams: Well, you go ahead. You tell me.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: OK. It was a little white boy, he would meddle with Robert and most times, he would hit Robert, but Robert would hit him back. That's for sure. But the teacher could always see Robert hitting the white boy, but she never could see the white boy hitting Robert. [Note: Robert was continuously getting sent to the principal's office.] So my wife talked to the teacher and told them, you know, if the boy is meddling [with] Robert, Robert is going [to hit and hit hard, but she did not] think he [would] meddle. We never said what our children wouldn't do. [She] said, "But now, if you watch him close, you'll find that that boy is hitting Robert." So, we talked to our children and told them, "Don't lie." But you can't say that they won't lie. But to make the long story short, here's what happened.



When he got to me, I told Robert, I said, "What you do Robert, if that boy hits you anymore," because he had got so, sometimes he wouldn't want to go to school. He'd come up with his stomach hurting or whatever. I guess that's what it was coming from. But, I said, "If he hits you, you hit him back. Don't play with him this time." I said, "You lay him out. And what you do, don't you get no books, no hat, no coat, no nothing, and you make it home to Daddy, or make it home." I said, "And this should break it up. Because if it don't, they're going to get in touch with me. That's for sure." So that's what happened, and then my wife told them, you know, that if that boy hits Robert, Robert's going to hit him back. So, anyway, after then, she started paying attention to it, and she caught that this white boy was actually hitting Robert. Now, I don't say that my children haven't meddled with other children or they haven't hit other children, or did things of that nature, but, you know, this is what broke that up. By him leaving school and coming home. That got everybody's attention. Because, I tell my children, always talk to the counselor, to the principal. I tell them, when my children do anything wrong, to spank them. [After the teacher observed the other child closely, she did catch him, and Robert was not sent to the principal's office, ever, through the rest of his schooling.]



Don Williams: Mr. Williams can we take just a couple of minutes break now?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Sure.



Don Williams: OK. And you probably want to get some water or something, too.



(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Back it up just a little bit so I can see where I was.



Don Williams: Well, I was just going to go on and take you on off.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Whatever. That's fine.



Don Williams: I'm the man here with the controls and stuff, and I know where I want to take you, now. (Laughter.) See, but, what I want to talk about right now is, you had the COFO activity here, and you had the boycotts, and things. Can you remember the first boycotts that you participated in? What happened and what did you do?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, this boycott, the last one they had in seventy-two, that was in March, and my main job that I really worked with was as they picket the stores, asking people not to go in the store.



Don Williams: Um-hm. What stores were those?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: All the stores down on Washington Street, and said, could be a few not on Washington Street, but all the Washington Street, the business part of Washington Street, not all of Washington Street, but the business part of Washington Street was being picketed. And what I would do is get individuals that would take people to grocery stores, say like to Monroe or Jackson, you know, to where they could buy groceries over there, since they was picketing downtown.



Don Williams: Let me back up just a little bit. Now, when you say picketing, what caused the picketing and who organized that? I mean, what was the issue?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: McBride was the one that started the picketing.



Don Williams: Reverend Eddie McBride?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Eddie McBride. He started the picketing. He was over the whole thing, and then they formed a board. And the problem was a fifty-six-year-old white man had molested a six-year-old black girl, and nothing came out of it. I don't know if the guy ever went to trial. But anyway, that's what started the boycott.



Don Williams: And, then, what was the objective of the boycott? I mean, what kind of--?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, the objective of the boycott was to try to get something done about that, and then see, when they started with the boycott, it was the blacks would have, get jobs in businesses, in management capacity. You see, because, practically then, everywhere you went, it was nothing but whites. You know? But now, since then, they've got them in the banks and other places in management, in businesses.



Don Williams: OK. How successful was the boycott?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: The boycott was real successful, because that's why you have seen a lot of changes here, develop[ments] for blacks in Vicksburg. Until, you know, along the end. I don't know, it just, you know, after things go on so long, it just kind of wore them down. It did the job on Vicksburg, [but progress was evident.]



Don Williams: So, who were some of the other key players outside of Eddie McBride? Tell me, what was your role again in the boycott itself?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, that's what I was saying. [Some of the key players were Charles Chiplin, John Ferguson, Welton Wardell, Albert (Bouncer) Johnson, Attorneys Ceola James and James Winfield, Janelle Lee, Mose Williams, Eva Ford, Pearline Williams, Delores Hemphill, Maude Phelps, Theodore Phelps, Ethel O. Smith, Lee Willa Miller, Bertha Wade, a young man referred to as "No Comment," and many others.]



You see, since I had always been helping here in Vicksburg, people knew me, and that was my job to [help.] And another thing that was my job was to raise money because you had to be supported, with finances, because the picketers, they had to have food and different things of that nature. So, it was, you know, every Sunday, most of the churches here in Vicksburg just had services one day, one Sunday out of the month. Well, my job was to go to as many churches on each pastoral day and regardless to what the church service, wherever it was when I walked in, with a lady called Belle, they would stop the service and say, "Y'all know what Brother Williams is here for. Let's get him out the way." They'd start raising collection. And I raised several hundred dollars each Sunday.



Don Williams: Um-hm. So, you were essentially the bag man.



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Yes. (Laughter.)



Don Williams: Were there some other things to raise money, were there some other significant individuals doing things?



Tommie Lee Williams Sr.: Well, people would give donations. I mean, I don't have no record of it, but people would support it, and then some churches would support it. Fact about it, this organization that I'm the founder and president of, has been here for twenty-seven years, I would say that it came out of the boycott. You know, where they may have been giving me clothes to give to people that was in the boycott, [and] whatever they [gave went for that. Finally I was called to a] store, which that was a few months later on down the road. That was back in October of that year. [A lady gave me all the clothes in the store. I had people to go with me to haul them in cars, but they would say they could not haul them, and I did not understand she was giving them all to me until my wife went with me. She got her father to haul them. I kept them in my mother's house until I could no longer do so. The boycott ended and there was no place to keep them. My wife rented a place to keep them and paid for me to have telephone service. People from other places heard and began to send clothes; thus began a business.]



Don Williams: OK. Mr. Williams, I'm going to cut this interview off now, and I want to thank you very much for taking time to talk with me, and it's been very informative. And I would ask you to do one thing for me, and that is, I know you have a wealth of experience, and I would just like to wring out just a little bit more stuff out of you, and if you can just promise me that--.



(End of tape one, side two. End of interview.)

 
 

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