Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Joining the Pentecostal Church

BOND: What about outside the school setting? Were there figures in the community that pushed you along some way or helped you in some way?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's kind of interesting because --

BOND: Let me interrupt you -- and ministers, particularly, because what I found interesting about your family is that you went to different churches.

WILLIAMS: Yes, that's true.

BOND: Now, how did that come about?

WILLIAMS: Well, my mother is Pentecostal and my father is African Methodist Episcopalian. And my mother tells the story. You see, my father was married twice. His first wife, in giving birth to the fourth child, died in childbirth. And he was in need of a wife because he had this young baby and he had these three young kids. And so, my mother had a very good reputation in the community. She was twenty-nine years old, had never been married and to hear her tell it, she never thought she would ever marry, and she was a virgin. I mean, think about that. She was a virgin. Everybody knew about her reputation and so my father went to my grandfather, whose name I bear, Armstrong Howell, and said, "You know Mr. Armstrong, my wife, Theola, just died. I've got this young baby and I'm looking for a wife and I would love to marry your daughter Thelma." He never went to my mother because that's not how it worked at the time. He went to my grandfather, and my grandfather told me the story during his lifetime.

He said, "Well, James, you've got a pretty good reputation. You work hard. You got that nice farm and you need help. I think Thelma would make you a good wife." He said, "Let me talk to her." So he talked to my mother and my mother said yes, so my mother came into the marriage with already four kids to take care of, but one of the things that she agreed on. They met -- this happened -- his wife died on January 24, 1957, and he married my mother March 1st. They never really knew each other. So he married my mother on March 1st, but the one thing that my mother asked for though, the only thing that she asked for is that she did not leave her papa's faith. She is not going to join with those boring African Methodist Episcopalian people and she is going to remain with New Life Holiness Church and I am the only one of the ten kids that joined with my mother. It's where I get my excitement, my zest for life.

BOND: So all of the other kids went to the AME church?

WILLIAMS: All of them are members of the AME church, even today they are, but I went with my mother.

BOND: So you tell the story about the difference between yourself and your siblings and your choice of church. Why did you go this way and they didn't?

WILLIAMS: Well, my father, to be candid with you, he actually thought that the people that would shout and speak in tongue, that they were kind of ignorant. He just looked down on it. And my father had such a huge influence on all of us. We are much more like our father than our mother, but, you know, I said, "Well, you know -- " And so I just said, I said, "Look -- " So I was talking to my father and he said, "Boy, you don't want to join them, uh-uh, you don't want to join." I said, "Well, I don't know. I mean, everybody else -- " I said, "I think I'm going to join Momma's church, plus I like it better, too." Because at his church, I'd sleep all the time. You know, even though church was a big part of our upbringing -- we went to church every Sunday -- it was not something that was indoctrinated. It was not everything. It was as if we had to stay in church because, see, at The Holiness Church, the thing that my father did not like, you'd get to church at eight o'clock in the morning and you would not get home until three. At least with my father's faith, you would get to church at eleven and you were out by one. And that was a big deal.

So my mother was in church all day, which drove him crazy but that was her thing. So I said I am going to join with Momma and she was so happy that I joined her. And I remain a member of her church today. That's why I joined, but one of the few times in my life I just decided with my father that I wasn't going to follow his advice.

BOND: Did this create any conflicts between yourself and your brothers and sisters?

WILLIAMS: Oh no, no, no. And my father liked the fact that I was willing to step out on it. He said, "Boy, after all, it is your momma. I mean, so how can I get upset with you? It is your momma." So, it was okay and we had that conversation.

BOND: It was never his thought to go to The Holiness Church. He would not --

WILLIAMS: No, would never. But he never tried to tell us -- even though he would tell us, in the end it was our choice and most of my brothers and sisters felt the same way. They just could not get into the speaking in tongues, people falling out all over the church and being covered in towels. It was just too much for them. But I said, "Okay, I'm going to join my momma." And so he gave me a pass on that.