Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race and Opportunity: Land Ownership

BOND: Before we began taping, we talked for just a moment and you said that in your father's family, you couldn't trace back to slavery.


BOND: But in your mother's family, you could?

WILLIAMS: Not only to slavery, but to --

BOND: Native Americans, American Indians.

WILLIAMS: Yes, American Indians because my grandmother was a full-blood Cherokee Indian and so in my father's side of the family, they were very industrious. They were landowners. They were entrepreneurs. They were farmers. His sisters were a seamstresses. They were entrepreneurs and they were able to accumulate masses of land that was never taken away from them in the family. In fact, the land is still with my cousins today, but my father broke away from that because he had a dispute with his brothers and he decided that he would have to go out and secure his own farm and it's funny how he was able to do this and he told this story often.

There was this guy by the name of Mr. Buck Davis and my father approached Mr. Davis and said, "You know, Mr. Davis, I don't necessarily want to be in business with my brothers. I want to have a family. I want to grow a farm. I want to have an opportunity for them to experience freedom and to build wealth and to possibly run for office some day and they cannot do this working for the man." And Mr. Davis said, "Well, James" -- that was my father's name -- "What can I do you for?" He said, "Well, Mr. Davis, I want -- there is this plot of land over on Davis Lane near [Centenary]. There are about fifty acres that I can buy and it costs about eight hundred dollars. Now, if you loan me that eight hundred dollars, I promise you that in the year's end from today, I will pay you back your eight hundred dollars."

Because during that time, as my father told the story, a black man could not buy land so he had to get this white man to front for him. And Mr. Davis said, "Well, I appreciate what you're saying, but," he said, "I'm going to loan you the money." And so he loaned my father the money and my father assumed he was getting about forty or fifty acres of land, but he was able to buy a hundred acres of land with this eight hundred dollars during that time. And the funny thing that my father tells me that happened in the community -- black people were upset with him for purchasing the land because they assumed that my father was trying to be better than they were.

BOND: He was getting ahead of himself.

WILLIAMS: That's right. And white people were upset because they felt my father did not know his place and this white man fronted for him and they would have never sold my father this land because the land was owned by white owners at the time. So my father's attitude from that experience, he said, "Son, don't get caught up in the black way of thinking and the white way of thinking. When people have power and they have control over you, they are all the same. So don't ever think that only white people can be racist and discriminate and abuse power. All people can do it. Just look over the world and you will see that as time progresses, you'll begin to understand that people are the same world over. Never get caught up in judging people based on their race, the hue of their skin." He said, "All you do in life is extend your hand and say 'Hi. My name is Armstrong Williams.' You judge a man how they treat you, based on their character and their values and you get the trust in that way."

BOND: Now you talk about your father having broken away from his brother who owned land and this long tradition of land owning on his side of the family. Now, that's not unusual, but it is relatively rare. How did that come about?

WILLIAMS: Well, my grandfather, my father's father, Colier, parents had land.

BOND: Where did their land come from?

WILLIAMS: Their land came from their parents. There were always -- you know, it comes from a background where they were one of the few free black families in the South that owned land, but not only owned land and I am going to reveal this. They also had -- we wouldn't call it slavery -- but they would call them indentured servants. They had people working on their farms. And they would say that they treated their indentured servants far better than the man treated his slaves. So they were able to pass this along and they were able to keep their land.

BOND: But every black person whose family can go back more than a hundred and fifty years has some origins in slavery. I mean, there -- when they came here from Africa, they came as slaves. So there is some point where your family achieved freedom. And how did that happen? Do you know?

WILLIAMS: You know, I really can't answer that. And, you know, we've researched it. We have done the family lineage on that and we have been able to trace it very well on my mother's side, but on my father's side, it's just --

BOND: Just lost?

WILLIAMS: -- a whole different story. And we've tried.

BOND: You need to find out. This is a fascinating story. This is a fascinating story, I'm telling you that you need to find out.

WILLIAMS: It's critical. I need to find out.