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Samuel Laing Williams

Samuel Laing Williams (b. 1864l d. 1921) was born in Georgia in about 1864. Following his graduation from the University of Michigan, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job with the U.S. Pension Office while attending law school at night at Columbian University. In Washington he met his future wife, Fannie Barrier. After Williams graduated from law school the two married and moved to Chicago, where Williams began his law practice. Initially he shared an office with Ferdinand L. Barnett, who became an outspoken critic of Booker T. Washington.

Williams and his wife often worked together in political and civic organizations in Chicago, including the Hyde Park Colored Voters Republican Club, the Taft Colored League, the NAACP, and he Equal Opportunity League. In 1905 the couple helped organize the Frederick Douglass Center, an experiment in interracial cooperation. In addition they organized the Prudence Crandall Club, an elite literary society for twenty-five select African American couples. The objective of Williams and his wife in forging these alliances was both the advancement of themselves among Chicago’s black elite and the betterment of all African Americans.

Williams had a close relationship with Booker T. Washington. He was a loyal advisor and supporter and served as Washington’s principal agent in Chicago, often organizing many of Washington’s Chicago affairs. The extent and nature of this relationship is evidenced in the numerous  letters exchanged between the two men that survive in the Washington papers. The tasks that Williams performed for the Tuskegeean included spying on black Chicagoans who associated with the Niagara Movement and serving as a go-between for Washington  and Chicago’s black newspapers. In 1906 Williams helped Washington purchase one of these papers, the Conservator, for $2,500. In 1904 Williams ghostwrote Washington’s biography of Frederick Douglass, and some speculate that Williams and his wife wrote other works for Washington as well.

Williams’s close association with Washington hindered his political career. For example, in 1904 William’s attempt to become head of the Republican Negro Bureau in Chicago was blocked by the militant anti-Washington faction among Chicago African Americans. A year later this same group prevented Williams from being appointed register of the treasury even though Washington had recommended him to President Theodore Roosevelt for the position. Nevertheless, Williams’s close alliance with Washington did not greatly influence his personal life. In addition to Barnett a number of Washington’s sharpest critics were part of Williams’s social circle, and Williams himself was a strong and consistent opponent of segregation.

Jack Johnson

In 1908 Williams became the assistant federal attorney of Chicago, largely owing to the influence of Washington. But Williams lost his position in 1909, was reinstated, and then lost it again in late 1912. There are several explanations for his difficulty in holding the position. His support of William Howard Taft’s presidential candidacy in 1908 alienated liberal blacks, he made enemies with his involvement in the boxer Jack Johnson’s morals case, and some said that he was ineffective as an attorney. Washington was told that Williams lacked energy and practicality. More importantly, the election of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson as president in November 1912 meant that there was little chance that a black Republican would hold the position of assistant federal attorney.

After leaving the federal attorney’s office, Williams became a committee member of the Chicago branch of he NAACP, and within the year he was made the Chicago branch’s vice president. Williams subscribed to the need to combine gradualist and egalitarian ideologies, thus implying that integrating African Americans into white society should b a slow yet continuous process. By 1914 Williams served the Chicago NAACP as a legal advisor on several of its civil rights cases. He was not effective at fighting discrimination in the courts, and the compensation he required was more than the NAACP could afford. When the NAACP decided to work with Chicago’s Legal Aid Society instead, Williams curtailed his legal work for the NAACP to pursue a full-time legal practice to support his family. Williams remained committed to civil rights and became militant during the last years of his life, especially following the death of Washington in 1915. Williams died in Chicago in 1921.

*Take directly from Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present, from the age of segregation to the twentyfirst century. Vol. 5. Edited by Paul Finkelman. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2009. P 137-138.

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