On April 7, 2014, we conducted an interview with Willie Williams at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse Museum of African American History in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project. We discussed Williams’s many years with the police department in Rocky Mount; Petersburg, Virginia; and in Wilson. He also told us about growing up in rural Wilson County, helping his family on their tobacco farm, and how racism affected him as a child, and how he took steps as the police chief in Wilson to curb crime in the neglected area of East Wilson.
Williams grew up in the Wilibanks area of Wilson County. His father was a Primitive Baptist preacher and also a tenant farmer. The main crop that was grown on their farm was tobacco. It took a large family to maintain the farm, as his father did not have the money to pay others to work there. Williams was one of twelve children, and they all took part in cultivating the crops.
We asked Williams how his father was treated at harvest time when he took his tobacco crop to the tobacco warehouses in Wilson, the largest tobacco market in the world. He said his father would sometimes get a white man that he knew to be his proxy so that he could get a better price for his crop. It was not uncommon for black farmers to be discriminated against at the tobacco market. Many black farmers would get an unfair price for the tobacco that they worked hard to cultivate. His father was not too proud to ask for help, but he also knew how to work the systems to his advantage.
Williams also told us a story about how racial hostility affected his family on their own property. There was a row of hedges that separated the Williams property from their white neighbor’s yard. One day his father decided to trim the hedges. They could now see their neighbor’s house. Apparently their white neighbors were not happy about their black neighbors seeing their property, and there were tensions between the two families for some time. Williams suspected that his neighbors did not want Williams and his brothers to see their daughter, who was a teenager at the time. This was part of the old Jim Crow system where black males could get lynched for just looking at a white female. It would be safe to say that his father never cut those hedges again.
Williams spent almost twenty-five years with the Rocky Mount police department, rising in the ranks to become the police chief, just a couple decades after the police force was integrated. After spending three years as the police chief in Petersburg, Virginia, Williams returned to Wilson where he was the police chief in the later 1990s. He shared stories about how he inadvertently helped to integrate the Rocky Mount police department in the late 1960s, and how he worked to curb crime in East Wilson, which had been mostly forgotten by the local authorities.
This interview gave a different perspective of Wilson as it left the Jim Crow era into a period of lost dreams and dashed hopes. Williams grew up in a rural environment, but still experienced racism when his family went to into town. His family was mostly self-sufficient, so their trips in Wilson were limited. He also gave us an insight into how law enforcement attempted to quell riots during the late 1960s by being more involved with the community. This is the same way that Williams helped to restore faith in the police department by becoming more active in East Wilson. As Williams said, there is still more work to be done.