Robert, right, Clare, left, Mary and baby John about 1895
Our home on E. Liberty Street, Charlotte, N.C. was just across the gravel street from the Southern Railroad tracks. Nearby was an elevated wooden water tank with iron hoops to hold the staves together. The steam engine, pulling the train, had to stop to fill its iron tank with water. Many times I had seen this operation, as a small child, from our house or yard. Later came an event which everyone in our neighborhood will always remember--a troop train! Men in uniform! Our army was moving from the North for some Southern port to ship into Cuba. This was the Spanish-American War, 1898. I was four years old. Since taking on water required only a short time, the troops were not allowed to leave the train. In answer to our hand waving and salutes, they in turn tossed us "hard-tacks," the main part of their ration. I caught one! I nearly broke my teeth on the 3-4 inch square. Tasteless. What a horrible ration!
Before the troop trains I remember other events. The neighbors saw me running down Liberty Street, naked, and a full block away, to the home of Alexander Graham and his large family of older boys and girls. Note 1 I needed protection. A towel was put around me and I was returned home. The fact of my running away was the subject of gossip. The reason for my running away has never been told before. Later I will tell it, much as it pains me to do so. If the story of my childhood cannot be told, then what is the purpose of writing this autobiography? There are other stories, not only about my older sister, Mary, but my father and my first wife which should be told.
Mother Annie Keenan, wedding photo 1879
The story of my mother, God bless her, should be described in order to set the background for our family. Her ancestry eludes me although I have made several searches. At four she was found in the home of a Negro family in Greenville, S.C., about 1868, just after the Civil War. The Keenan family, seeing her sad situation, took her into their own white household. They were Roman Catholic, so she became a devout member of that faith. Whether she was considered an accepted member of the Keenan's or just attached to them, is a question I cannot answer. She took the name "Keenan". At any rate she was married at the early age of 15 to my father, 21. Did she want to leave the Keenan household, or did they encourage her to marry so young? Note 2
Perhaps all young children have an inborn love for their mother who breast-fed them. I certainly did. There was no fault in her that was perceptible to me. Never did she strike or otherwise punish, yet at times I must have deserved discipline like other kids at my age. It was all love, hope, and forgiveness, shining down on her children.
Maybe I am prejudiced, but she was all loving to me. She gave me the love and affection she herself never received.
My father, on the other hand, was a strict disciplinarian. Even if there was any doubt about my guilt, I took a beating. He seemed unable to show any evidence of kindness, love, or affection toward members of his own family, and yet I want to say something on his behalf. In the many crises which overtook our family during my childhood; sickness, want, and deaths, he stood by to be helpful. He worked hard, ten hours a day for $50 per month. Years later he earned the monthly sum of $150 while employed as a salesman at Sheldon Company in Charlotte. The company was largely owned by his younger brother, Charles A. Williams (1866-1937). Note 3
He had other brothers, George James Williams (1857-1906) and William Edward Williams (1864-1899). All had large families.
In 1972 I obtained the names and addresses of about 200 living descendants (including spouses) of these four brothers: John, George, William, and Charles. This was printed as Directory, Living Descendants of William Williams@ 1972. There was yet another uncle of mine, Joseph Augustus Williams, Jr. (1852-1923), who never had any children. Crippled by polio in his youth--one leg was several inches shorter than the other. More about him later.
The 5 brothers of Joseph A. from left standing: Charles,26, William,28, Seated: John,33, Joseph Jr., 40, George,35
My grandfather, Joseph A. Williams (1819-1875) died almost 20 years before I was born. Most kids today are fortunate to know and live with their grandparents. They can relate to them better, in many cases than to their own mothers and fathers. As the great Rabbi, Mordecai Kaplan, so reported to have said, "The reason children and their grandparents see eye to eye is because they have a common enemy."
In 1933 I published some results of research into my family history. Later I wrote a book The Ancestor @ 1971, which went back in history to 1708. However, as a child I knew nothing about all of this.
The story about my grandfather, Joseph A. Williams, was told to me as a child, and my research shows that he operated a store, general merchandise, in Newbern, N.C. His father, William (Joseph) Williams (1759-1823), had moved to North Carolina, during the Revolutionary War, from New York City where he had a portrait studio.
During the Civil War, Newbern, N.C. came under attack by Northern troops corning up the Neuse River. The Confederates, unable to protect the city, ordered the inhabitants to vacate forthwith. My grandfather had to abandon his store, his home, everything except his wife, children, money, and what could be piled onto a horse-drawn wagon. Family records did not survive the 60 mile wagon trip to Goldsboro and from there by rail to Charlotte. (The Goldsboro-Charlotte rail line was established in 1854.) I would give my left arm if those family records were now available to me. As Sherman said, "War is Hell." His family left Newbern March 13, 1864, and reached Charlotte weeks later. There he set up a store again. But the Confederate money he had saved became worthless after that War ended. His wife was Ann Maria Penny (1829-1871) from Southampton, N.Y. In the 23 years they were married (1848), she gave birth to nine children. Four died in childhood. The remaining five (all boys) had a tough time of it when their mother, Ann, died. Some were "farmed out" to land holders. At least they had enough food from the farm to eat after her death. The father of these five boys married a widow, Mrs. J. H. McDowell, in 1873. She could not meet the image the boys had of their deceased mother. It was too much! At the age of 13 my father left home, ran away, and never came back to his stepmother. Two years later, Joseph A. Williams also died, from pleurisy and exposure, December 16, 1875. He was buried in the Charlotte, N.C. Elmwood Cemetery. My father, mother, and other members of the family are also buried in this place. Note 4
Grandfather Joseph A. Williams, ca. 1870, from a miniture "Tintype"
Running away from home at 13, with the poorest kind of elementary education, my father barely survived in a war-torn land. He traveled as far south as Macon, Ga., going from towns to farms, to towns, month after month--cruel, desperate times. He took on the hard armor of his environment. Just a teenager, he learned to fight, struggle for survival. Finally he returned to Charlotte where his four brothers lived, two older and two younger. At least one had access to a farmer's food supply. But even in those days a farmer's table had few leftovers! Even pigs had to "Root, Hog or Die." The same remark was directed at humans for many years.
My father opened up a grocery store in a small house. Farmers would unload produce from wagons. Sacks of potatoes were stacked outside the door along the dirt sidewalk. I recall seeing a stray male dog using a sack against which he urinated. When this was reported, the owner promptly moved the potatoes indoors. The potatoes might have an “off” flavor! Cutting cheese, meat, and melons was a problem because flies were all over. I often wondered how he could cut off a pound of cheese without beheading a fly or two. Screens were unknown or unavailable. Ice was not available until much later. This condition also applied to the grocer who took over the store after my father failed in his business. Some housewives, too busy with home work, would send one of their kids to the grocer with a request that he deliver what they wanted. So grocers usually employed a young Negro boy, gave him a bicycle and a few coins a day, to deliver the items requested. Horse-drawn vehicles used the macadam streets and horse manure, well pulverized by hoofs and iron wheels, was a well accepted surface component of all streets.
One hot summer I remember seeing a young Negro boy, on a bicycle, carrying a paper bag under his left armpit. A jolt from the front wheel's contact with a road stone caused him to loosen his arm grip on the paper bag. It fell to the ground and burst open. Rather than return to the store for a re-order, where doubtless he would have been fired for carelessness (wicker handlebar baskets for holding packages were not used at that time), I saw him get down and sweep up the white grated coconut along with admixed road dirt, retie the package, and proceed with the delivery. I would have warned the recipient about the contamination, but could not keep pace with the speed of the boy on his bicycle. Perhaps the coconut frosting on the birthday dinner cake may not have looked unusual in the dim glow of the kerosene table lamp, nor would the peculiar underarm odor from the delivery boy be noticed amidst the perfumed young ladies seated around the birthday dinner table.
In later life my father related to us how he kept records in his store. From this information I was able to deduce the cause of his business failures. When a customer paid for his purchases, the money was put into the cash box. Some customers asked for credit. He then wrote the customer's name and the amount on a slip of paper and stuck it on a spindle file. Another day when the customer came in and paid his bill (Saturday was usually "pay day", my father would find the slip of paper and tear it up in front of the customer. The transaction was now closed. This was a simple way of doing business. The fly in the ointment was that more and more customers began using his credit system and the number of slips of paper began to increase and pile up on his file. Soon he was out of business!
His younger brother, my uncle Charles, on the other hand, who had been "farmed-out", learned from his boss how to be conservative in business management--later made a fortune. He was strict in business dealings. In family life he was humble. Just the opposite of my father.
In 1893 my uncle Charles married Katherine Lauer of Richmond, Va. Both her paternal and maternal ancestors (Lauer and Reinhardt) were of German origin. She "ruled the roost" in his home, yet gave her husband eight children--few problems. My father "wore the pants" in his house. All of his eight children had problems. More than average, we suffered from ignorance, lack of medical service, poverty, alienation, sickness, and many deaths.
Father, 1860, in New Bern, prior the Civil War
Later Uncle Charles built a large white brick home on the prestigious Tryon Street. This main street in Charlotte was named after the Colonial English Governor, William Tryon (1765-1771).
Let's get back to 201 E. Liberty Street. It was a "back" street, to the more affluent people of Charlotte, although only a block away from Dilworth Road, where many rich people lived. Liberty Street and another street nearby formed a barrier between the wealthy whites and the Negro section of town, the extremely poor. Dilworth Road and Tryon Street had paved sidewalks. We had a sandy sidewalk and rock-gravel road, used at that time by vehicles. The Negro sections had no recognized sidewalks and a red clay road in front of their shanty homes. When it rained they had to step from their houses into mud. The wealthy (successful) whites looked down on the poor whites, and we, in turn, felt we were above the blacks. It seemed important to some whites to have people below them.
My sister, Clare, three years older, my brother, Robert, 11 years older, were easy to get along with. Keenan, 3 years younger, had a mental problem.
Mary, 6 years older, was at that time my big problem. But my mother had to lean on her, the oldest girl, for help in supervising the other children. She had the authority and used it. Robert had a kidney problem, could not retain his urine, had to use a rubber bag. With today's medicines and surgery he could have been made normal, I'm sure. Even in Charlotte, as I now look over its history during that period, there were good medical people there. Well known were Drs. Robert Gibbon, John Irvin, C.A. Misenbeimer, and others who helped to establish the Presbyterian Hospital in 1898. A Good Samaritan Hospital opened in 1888, established "exclusively for serving Negroes." There was also St. Peter's Hospital from 1876 with help from St. Peter's Episcopal Church. Even an X-ray picture was taken at Davidson College in 1896 by Drs. Barringer, Hardie, and Porter, according to Dr. E. B. Frost. Many other doctors came to Charlotte during this period. Some wore a Prince Albert, a silk topper, and either drove a quick horse or employed a Negro driver, while making routine house calls. But these were all Protestant people, mostly Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. See Charlotte Remembers.
My father would not go outside the Catholic Church to get medical help. Why? There is no good answer! Note 5 Note 5a
Among the Roman Catholics in Charlotte, there was one doctor. I recall Dr. Dennis O'Donahue who had to do everything. To treat Robert's kidney problem he prescribed that he drink beer. My father then ordered a case of bottled beer. After taking the amount specified per day, I recall seeing the look of misery on Robert's face. It was of no help whatever, so he ceased taking the "beer" medicine. Robert was the best of the lot. I would have given my life if only his could have been saved.
At fourteen he finished the Catholic school system. Off to work he went, earning 50 cents for a hard day's work, and died a few years later. His death broke my mother's heart. He was her first of eight children.
My father was adamant also about a child of his going to public schools. Why? Again no good answer. The public schools were much more advanced than the small parochial schools. More about the schools and medicine later.
Father believed to be wedding photo in 1879
Before describing my problems with my sister, Mary, I want to tell some recollections of my mother's situation. She had to wash, iron, mend, and sometimes make the children's clothes, wash bed linen, towels, curtains, etc. Washing meant scrubbing them in a wash tub with a corrugated wash board attached to it, rinsing and hanging them out in the yard or our back porch to dry, clean the house, cook for the big family, feed the younger children, do the marketing, start the children off to the school, and attend Sunday Mass. It was a "sin" not to attend Mass, unless bed-ridden with illness. She had to nurse each new infant and sleep with my father each night in their double bed. Kids had to double-up in single beds; not enough beds to go around. In spite of all these chores, my mother would give priority to sickness. Each child, in turn, had all of the usual childhood medical problems. She would stop her housework to tend a sick child, no day off and more than twelve hours work each day.
There were some exceptional days which differed from the above schedule: when my mother was ill or giving birth to another child, or when my father was out of town after he became a traveling salesman. I will mention these later.
I can barely remember the outhouse. My father hired a plumber to pipe water into the house; first to a sink in the kitchen, another line (and drain pipe) to a toilet bowl at the end of our back porch. This was screened-in with a door for privacy. In winter, temperatures in Charlotte often reached 20 F and lower. The house was built on brick pillars, three feet above ground.
There was an iron water pipe, three feet from the ground, up to where it entered the floor of the house. It was exposed to outside temperature. Water in the pipe froze; no water. The plumber was called again. He wrapped the pipe with thick padding to insulate the pipe from the sudden drop in temperatures--it worked. However, we still used chamber bed pots at night. The toilet seat on the back porch was too cold to sit on during winter nights.
With these facilities now working, my father, feeling financially secure (presumably from a raise from $50 to $75 a month), had a bathtub installed with hot and cold water valves. We could all use it in turn.
Why I ran away. It was my mother's wish that my sister Mary bathe the younger children, which she did about once a week, using warm water.
One day was different from those in the past. My mother was away, probably shopping, Robert was at work, Clare was in school. Mary had drawn water in the tub and said to me, "Go jump in the tub." After taking off my clothes I put my left foot in, but the water in the bathtub was scalding hot--it was not the usual "just warm" temperature. Again she said, "Get in." The only way I could obey her command was to put one foot on one side of the rim of the tub and my other foot on the opposite rim. I straddled the tub above the hot water. This satisfied Mary. I waited in this position for her to add cold water into the tub to reduce the temperature so I could get down into the water. She did not.
What followed caused me to lose my mind. She dipped a wash rag into the tub water, found it too hot for her hand, so she added a little cold water to it from the faucet and proceeded to wash between my legs.
Previous to this incident Mary had indicated to me that sex was bad. In fact sex and sin meant the same thing. There was an old second-hand book in the house on medicine. It was one of only three or four books, except school books, in the home. (The others were Lives of the Saints written by a priest, and my mother's Ursuline Manual, now with my son, John F. Williams III. She received it in Greenville, where at twelve, she was confirmed. She took it to Mass every Sunday.)
One day I opened up the book on "medicine." Although I was too young to read, there under Anatomy, was a drawing of a nude adult with names given to the various parts of the human body. This was very interesting to me--I wanted to know. Mary came into the room, saw me looking at the drawing, snatched the book from my hands, and put the book on a high shelf out of my reach! Although there was no sex organ shown on the drawing, I got her message. Sex was taboo. It might be shown elsewhere in the book!
Another incident occurred one morning when I went to the back porch toilet, but could not urinate. My foreskin had closed over my penis during the night. My first reaction was to run and report it right away. But sex and sex organs was a taboo subject, so I reconsidered. After several minutes trial the foreskin was forced back over the head of my penis--then I could urinate. I had succeeded without outside or medical help! Never again did I have this problem. Whether other little boys have this problem I do not know. Nor do I know if this situation is related to the practice of circumcision by Jews.
While I was still straddling the bathtub over the hot water Mary started washing between my legs. Instead of being washed away, my sex organ seemed to get bigger. Since sex was so evil, was she trying to take away from my body? Was she greater than God who had put it on me? Why was I over the hot water? Where was my mother? I became almost insane--jumped from the rim of the tub of hot water and started running--Mary right after me. I escaped her clutches in our backyard and darted down the sidewalk to the home of Dr. Alexander Graham, a block away. She did not follow me--to my knowledge. I could not explain or talk about my running away to members of the Graham family, or to anyone else. My brain was petrified.
The neighborhood. Next door to our house lived my uncle, George Williams, his wife Mary (Cormack), and children, all girls, except his oldest, Morrison. Their water came from a well where an iron hand-pump brought water into a bucket on their back porch. Toilet facilities were provided by an outhouse--three holes in their backyard. The center smaller hole was for a small child. The other two larger holes were for adults.
The rest of the houses on E. Liberty Street were occupied by low-income white Protestant families. The two Catholic homes were outnumbered, about twelve to one. There was prejudice on both sides. We kids, however, while playing baseball in the street together never gave a thought to our parents' religious prejudices.
My father was very sensitive to rumors and gossip. Only such stories, which reflected adversely on members of his own family, would set him on fire. Like Caesar's wife, his family had to be above reproach or suspicion. He himself observed this attitude, especially with women and wives of other men, and any man who made a complimentary remark about the charm or beauty of my mother became an enemy. My mother recognized this condition and used it as a defensive weapon when they had a "cat and dog" fight. Never did I see my father kiss my mother, put his arms around her, or show her any tenderness, which she wanted most of all. Of course they slept in the same bed and he had his "husband's rights" or else they could not have produced so many children. As a child I recall a story going the rounds about a "run-away wife." She was caught and the judge ordered her brought back to her husband's "bed and board."
After my father became a traveling salesman for Williams and Sheldon Company, covering many western North Carolina towns, he was away from home often a week at a time. I remember that he had to carry several bags of sample merchandise—textile fabrics and "notions." He used the railroads, but some of the towns he had to visit were two miles from the railroad station, so he hired a horse and buggy into town. Mother was happy during his absence. She had a bed to herself. She loved all of her children and they her.
Once I was confined to our yard, a 30' X 50' area which included a vegetable garden. No longer could I go out into the street and "catch" and bat the baseball with a number of other neighbor boys who were my playmates. I could only watch them play from inside our low picket fence. My father did not give the real reason for my confinement. When I cried he said, "I don't want you playing with Protestant boys." There were no other kinds of boys in the neighborhood! He did give me a pair of rabbits and some pigeons to look after in the yard. This did not compensate for the loss of my playmates.
I became sickly and developed a hacking cough. This was TB. Now, over 78 years later, the X-ray films still show the residual damage to my lung tissue. (My medical records, since retirement in 1956, have been on file at U.S. Naval Medical Center, San Diego, CA 92134, and are available to my estate.) My stomach, too, lacks acid--hydrochoric acid--always has. In adult life I could control this condition by using citrus fruits, apple juice, or the use of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) which helps in the digestion of certain meats, especially beef and chicken. In my childhood vitamins were undiscovered, as was the knowledge of my lack of stomach acid. At Christmas time we had oranges, which I devoured with gusto and then could enjoy the turkey and ham dinner. The rest of the year we had no oranges. Freight trains, without ice, carrying citrus fruit from Florida would by-pass small towns, like Charlotte, in their rush to reach the larger markets at Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
My father liked meat and potatoes and had little use for fruit. Naturally, being the head of the house, this is what he wanted the family to have for dinner. I could eat the potatoes. He threatened me if I did not clean my plate. Frequently I would dispose of the meat on my plate without his observation. I had to disobey to save my health--or my life!
One day I was a-bed with a fever of 102 degrees. At dinner that evening when my father came home from work. He took a piece of fried chicken to my bed and said, "Eat this, it will be good for you." My mother pleaded in vain against it. Since this was a command --not just an invitation--I ate it. Shortly thereafter my fever rose to 105 degrees. My mother spent most of the night bathing my hot body with a rag dipped in a mixture of cold water and vinegar.
When old Dr. Dennis O'Donahue came to visit me he said that a fever patient should never be fed meat. My mother and I were pleased with this medical advice. My father was chagrined. A good Catholic doctor had overruled him!
After recovery from the fever I still had the hacking cough (from TB). Dr. O'Donahue came again. After examining my chest, he prescribed that I be given a tablespoon of cod liver oil several times a day. In those days, cod livers were processed without refrigeration, often decomposed before the oil could be extracted. When the bottle of rancid oil was opened, its odor and taste were awful. Finally I decided it better to live with the disease rather than try to swallow the rancid oil! Again I disobeyed, to prevent vomiting. Today, if you need it, cod liver oil is not hard to take-it's been purified.