CEDAR LAKE—“We had a terrible cold spell. I haven’t seen one like that in a good long while,” Joel Williams Sr. said of the Christmas weekend freeze.
“He’s been around 100 years. If he hasn’t seen one like that in a long while, that says something,” added his youngest daughter, Girtha Woodard.
“I’ve seen snow here once where the snow was knee deep. It was a long while back—when I was a boy,” said Williams, whose 100th birthday is today.
During the century he has lived in Matagorda County, Williams has seen many things that few people can remember today.
He has seen people riding skiffs through the streets of Bay City after a water release from a dam in Austin flooded the Colorado River and spilled over into the area.
He has seen fields of sugar cane, and he can remember when Bay City was just a small town.
He can remember horses getting spooked and throwing riders from buggies as the first car in the county—driven by Jim Rugeley—rattled down the roads.
Williams has also seen many more personal changes.
When he was born, the black population of Matagorda County was nearly double that of the white population. Fewer than 3,500 people resided in the county.
The South was still wrestling with reconstruction, and tensions were at a peak when he was born. When blacks tried to exercise their political rights as the majority in the late 1800s, they were forcibly put down by whites from Matagorda and surrounding counties.
When Williams was 5 years old, a White Man’s Union was formed in the county to keep blacks subjugated. Despite these conditions, which lingered until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Williams still saw many advances.
He was born on the Caney Creek plantation of Col. James Boyd Hawkins to Amy and Polk Williams, a tenant farming family. He had four brothers and six sisters.
Although he was never told the full story, Williams believes his father was sent down here from Tennessee after shooting a man. Once here, he chose his wife on the plantation.
Hawkins was one of the earliest settlers of the county who earned his fortune growing cotton and sugar cane on his slave plantation. After the Civil War, he tried to continue the plantation using convict labor for several years before changing to cattle and the tenant farming system.
Under that system, Williams said ever third bale of cotton and every fourth bushel of corn went to the farm owner.
But Williams was not destined to remain in the farm business. At an early age he began breaking into new professions.
“I was the first colored man to carry mail down in this section. I carried from Cedar Lake down to a place called Craig’s Store,” said Williams.
“I came through all these woods, it was all a woods section. There wasn’t no prairie. I came on horseback. That was when I was 10 years old. That was before the 1900 storm.”
The storm he referred to was the hurricane which wiped out 3,660 homes in Galveston and claimed 6,000 lives.
“It tore up a lot of stuff everywhere in this section. I was on a horse. Trees and limbs were falling all ahead of and behind me. I was on a good horse—it kept going.”
By that time Williams had been attending school for four years in Bethlehem Christian Church.
“I walked five miles from the Hawkins plantation out here to school every day. We had to walk to school barefooted,” recalled Williams. “I didn’t know what long pants was then. Boys wore knee pants.”
Williams can still remember the name of his teacher, Miss Allen, who taught him all the way through high school. She was to play a major in his life by suggesting that he continue his education—an option which had not been available to blacks before that time.
“My teacher got me into Tuskegee Alabama. They were offering students a job. Work-students—you’d come down and work your way through school,” said Williams. “My teacher got an application for me. I went down to Alabama and worked my way through college for four years.
“I studied steam engineering and read all kinds of books on chemistry, trigonometry, all those things.”
Williams is the last living member of his class at the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington as one of the first black colleges. Last year, he went back to Alabama where he was given the key to the city and recognized by Tuskegee University which evolved from the institute.
“I haven’t been there in 50 years,” he said.
After graduating in 1912 with an engineering degree, Williams returned to Matagorda County to practice the trade he had learned and raise a family. He worked at several cotton gins and sugar cane gins in the area, including one owned by Abel Pierce of Blessing and another in Bay City. He ended up working at the Rugeley gin in Sargent.
“After college I came home; that was before they had this gin. I helped them build the gin and I took charge of it. I did that for about 25 years,” said Williams with pride.
During his career as a gin operator, World War I broke out in Europe. Williams said he was given a physical and was supposed to go into the service when his employer, Jim Rugeley, kept him out by citing Williams as an essential worker.
However, Williams did not miss out on many adventures, according to his daughter.
“One thing I do remember about my dad when he worked the gins around here was when they had a big fire,” said Woodard. “The fire broke out and I thought ‘oh, my daddy’s gone’ He was all up in the middle of it fighting that fire.”
“It was a wonder I didn’t catch on fire,” recalled Williams with a low chuckle.
“You wouldn’t believe it. Everybody ran off and he was there by himself,” said his daughter.
In 1936, Williams began a second career as a public school teacher in two-room school for blacks in Sargent.
“There was a man there ahead of me, but he got drunk and stuff, so the trustees asked me could I teach school.”
He became a principal with 32 students and two teachers under him. Williams worked there for five years with a principal’s salary of $85 a month.
In 1942, he became principal of the Cedar Lake School after the principal there was drafted into the army for World War II.
“There was a little front room and a little back room in Sargent, but when we came up here, we had three rooms. It was a pretty big size,” William remembered.
Williams was one of the primary people who pushed for consolidating the Cedar Lake School with the Van Vleck Schools in 1952. After the consolidation, Williams taught math in grades 7-9 in Van Vleck and helped bus students to school.
During his career as an educator, Williams was still called on frequently to help at the gin.
“I taught school and drove the bus sometimes. When they had trouble at the gin I’d go on fix gin, working at night. Then I’d come back here and get ready for school, take the bus and pick up the children said Williams.
He was also busy raising his seven children. Five of them—Faye M. Woodard, Wilhelm Moye, Tena Simien, Girtha Woodard and Augustus Williams—are still living in the area.
His wife, Clarinda Gee, died in 1964. “I never saw another one I liked. If you had one stay with you that long and she died would you marry again?”
Williams is proud of his family.
“I never let my wife work for nobody. A doctor came and asked her to work for him, and I said, ‘no, I’m your supporter’,” said Williams.
The Williams’ children all followed in their father’s footsteps and became teachers.
“I was lucky, and fortunate enough to put all of them through college. It was a struggle. But I worked hard,” he said. “I’ve seen times when I just had one pair of pants. And when they kind of changed colors, my wife went to buy some dye and dyed them a different color. Everybody thought I had a new pair of pants.”
“That’s why he had to work so hard and he didn’t want her to work too hard—she was kept busy dyeing his pants,” joked his youngest daughter, who has been a first-grade teacher in Van Vleck for more than 20 years.
Williams retired from the teaching profession in 1966, a few years before the schools were integrated. Experimental integration was tested in one of his classes before he retired.
“I had two Mexican girls in my classes. I started to whip one once and she quit,” said Williams adding that strict discipline was the norm during his days as a teacher.
“That’s what the boys say now-days when they get ready to talk about it, is ‘the one thing we remember about you, Joel, you could whip so hard,’” said Woodard.
Besides his career and family, Williams has also remained active with the church, serving as secretary for 76 years at Bethlehem Christian Church. He has also served on the deacon board, is an elder and has been director of Sunday school for the church.
Friends, ex-students, co-workers and family—including a host of grandchildren and great grandchildren—are all invited to a birthday reception in his honor being held Friday from 7:30-10 p.m. at the Matagorda Hotel in Bay City.
The Daily Tribune, December 28, 1989
Joel Williams, Sr., born and reared in Matagorda County, began his college training in 1908 in Tuskegee Institute, Macon County, Tuskegee, Alabama. The college was founded by Booker T. Washington. He attended school there four years receiving training in academic work and studying a trade in steam engineering. In 1912 he graduated from Tuskegee and returned to Cedar Lake in Matagorda County.
His first occupational choice was to follow the trade profession as it had been instilled in him by the founderof Tuskegee to work with the head and hands for an honest living. He worked as a steam engineer in the cotton-gin business for 23 years.
Williams' teaching career began in 1936 when he was elected to be principal of the Sargent Elementary School in Sargent. He had 32 students and 2 teachers in the school. He worked at Sargent for five years with a principal's salary of $85 a month.
In 1942 Williams became principal of the Cedar Lake School. This was a larger school with more students and teachers. He served in this position to help enlighten the citizens of the community on the importance of consolidating with Van Vleck. In 1952 total consolidation occurred, and he began teaching math in grades seven, eight, and nine in Van Vleck.
His love for children and mathematics and the desire to develop humanity kept him in the same position for the next 14 years. He retired from the Van Vleck schools in 1966.
Joel Williams, Sr., Historic Matagorda County, Volume I, 1986
|Mr. Williams' Obituary|
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Dec. 26, 2010
Dec. 26, 2010