Captain Council: Life of First African American Elected to the City Council

Council President Leo Robinson and local historians Ron Robinson and George Ostler flank a portrait of Alderman William ‘Captain’ Williams – a portrait that will be dedicated in Chelsea City Hall next Monday, Feb. 27th in honor of Black History Month. Williams was a prominent figure in Chelsea during the early 1900s and was actually the first black elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1901. He served for many years on the Board and provided crucial leadership during the first Great Fire of 1908.

When Council President Leo Robinson first ran for public office in Chelsea back during the 1970s, both he and his brother, Ron, believed that, if elected, Leo would have been the first African American member of the City Council.

However, history had a totally different course.

Leo Robinson was eventually elected to office in 1981, and soon after that, he and his brother Ron, of the Lewis Latimer Society in Chelsea, were astonished to learn that Robinson was actually the second African American to serve on the Chelsea City Council.

For years, that first man, Attorney William James Williams, was shrouded in mystery, having served on the Council’s precursor, the Board of Alderman, from 1901 to 1919. Beyond that, there was little anyone knew about him, that is, until this fall.

Leo and Ron Robinson, along with City Historian George Ostler, put their historical noses to the grindstone this past October and came up with a wealth of information that they plan to exhibit at City Hall in honor of Black History Month.

The exhibit will premiere on Feb. 27th at City Hall, where there will be a dedication and a short program about Alderman ‘Captain’ Williams.

“We started all of this in October, and ironically, he’s all over the Internet, but very few people in Chelsea have ever heard of him,” said Ron Robinson. “He was in office prior to the first Great Fire in 1908. Then, the City went into receivership after the fire. He was known to give people places to stay in his house after the fire so they had somewhere to go and so they had an address for their families to find them. He ran again after the fire and won at-large and served up until he got sick in 1919.”

Added Ostler, “There are a lot of secrets buried in the history of Chelsea, and he is just one of them.”

Williams – known as ‘Captain’ – came to Chelsea from Toronto when he was a baby. His parents were part of a large group of blacks that came to Chelsea from Canada in the late 1800s.

He was sent to Boston as a young man and educated in the exclusive Phillips School and Academy. Afterward, he attended and graduated from Harvard College, then embarked on a military career as an officer and a “Buffalo Soldier,” a term given to blacks who fought in the segregated U.S. Military prior to 1945.

Standing more than six feet tall, he was admired by all in a time of extreme racial prejudice. Former Massachusetts Gov. Roger Wolcott said this, “There isn’t a better captain in the regiment than Captain Williams.”

Williams fought in the Spanish American War and led his all-black company in fighting at Puerto Rico and Cuba. He led Company L of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment. Williams was also the first black officer with a captain’s commission in the U.S. Military – according to Ron Robinson and Ostler.

“Part of the problem for black soldiers at the time going into Puerto Rico and Cuba was that you had to fight other black people,” said Ron. “You wanted to defend your country for honor, but when you came back you had to figure out how to deal with racism and violence against you. You are helping to defend your country, and in your own country you’re not recognized as a human being. That was probably a dilemma he faced.”

After a distinguished career in the military, Williams set up a law office in Boston’s Pemberton Square.

He apparently returned to Chelsea about that time and married Sarah Williams, a schoolteacher in Chelsea. Captain Williams’s brother, Richard, also served as a firefighter on the Chelsea Fire Department at the same time.

Captain Williams lived at 44 Carmel St., a home that still stands just off of Washington Avenue.

Williams was first elected to the Board of Alderman in 1901 and served as a ward alderman until the 1908 fire.

Following the turmoil of the fire and reconstruction of the city, Williams took his place as an at-large Alderman in 1912. He served until 1919, and died in 1924 from complications that had been present since his days in the military – specifically a case of Typhoid Fever he contracted in the Caribbean.

He is buried in Everett’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Leo Robinson – current president of the Council – said it he was excited to learn about this new piece of history.

“I had heard about him since I first got elected, but I didn’t know all that much,” said Leo. “It’s fascinating to know about what was here and unless we know where we’ve been, we don’t know where we’re going. It’s critical to have the young people know about their Chelsea history – no matter where they’re from. Frankly, what I would like to see is some type of curriculum at the high school related to Chelsea’s history – teaching things like the story of William J. Williams.”

Added Ron, “Part of why we want to tell the story of our black history in Chelsea is because we’re probably the second-oldest group of people here in Chelsea. We want our contributions to be known where maybe they are not.”

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