Black History Makers: Abraham Williams
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - During the month of February, we’re celebrating leaders in the Black community.
Abraham Williams has been the Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Bowling Green for 25 years. During that time, he has helped 140 low to moderate income families find homes, and moved 800 people off welfare. He was born in Phenix City, Alabama in 1947. And our Gene Birk talked with him about growing up with discrimination.
“We knew we had to go to the colored water fountain,” said Williams. “We knew we couldn’t try on clothes. We knew we couldn’t go swimming at the swimming pool where the white kids live. So there’s a lot of things that we didn’t even realize that we’ve been segregated against until we got a little older.”
And then, things got worse.
“We went to the doctor’s office, and on the bus I said, ‘Look, let’s take the first seat.” And the bus driver said, ya know. ‘Y’all can’t sit there.’ I said ‘Man, you just don’t understand. My mother had a stroke. She can’t. We couldn’t hardly make it to the bus stop. And the man said ‘If you say another word, boy, I’m gonna call the police on you and your mama and get both y’all put off.’ And your mother did like most black mothers did, put that hand on your leg and said ‘C’mon Baby, it’s all gonna be okay.’”
“Once we get to the bus station, once we get to the doctor’s office, there’s colored waiting rooms and white waiting room. Our appointment was at nine that morning. And the doctor don’t come in till four because he would have all the white patients first. And then he’d come back and wait on the black patients. It was just a part of growing up. We knew that from childhood up.”
Gene: “Do you think the way police have interacted with blacks that we’ve seen throughout the past year is is typical, or is it unusual?”
“The only thing changed is we’re being recorded. God, when I grew up white police would be coming in your neighborhood and they would do whatever they wanted to do. They beat you and do anything else. And who’s gonna do something about it. You go before a white judge, and he was gonna give you more time. I think the best thing that happened was the cell phone so it can be recorded. Things hadn’t changed a whole lot.”
Most black men can give you a story about how they’ve been discriminated or stopped by the police. All of us have stories. A lot of time it all depends on how you handle it. We were taught very early. The police stop you put your hands on the steering wheel. You say ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ You don’t even look him in the eye. So things hadn’t really changed. You just been publicized more.”
Gene: “Okay, so what do you think the future of race relations is in the United States? What’s going to happen?”
“I think it’s gonna get better. And I think, and this summer proved something to me that I thought I’d never see in my life. I saw a whole lot of white kids who was involved in the civil rights in the marches. And I mean, even in Bowling Green, if there was, in Circus Square, you know, if there was 1,000 people 6-or-700 were white kids, young, white kids, and I think they gonna make a world of difference.”
“Gene, racism is taught at one place. It’s at the dinner table, it’s what they hear their parents say while they ride in the car with them, and what they say and watching television. That’s where racism is taught. But again, this summer has given me more inspiration to see people want to do the right thing, and especially our young kids.”
Gene: “So how do you think folks can improve race relations in this country, and around the world?”
(Unintelligible) “We don’t need to sit down and talk. We need to sit down and plan. We need to do things to help our community. If I get to work with you, on a daily or weekly basis, I can we can develop a relationship. And at the end of the day or end of the week, or end of the month, we’ve built something here. Typical example when Don Vitale called, and he say ‘Hey Abraham, he said, I’ve been watching this on television, what can we do as a community?’ So together we started a program called Pop Up to help small minority businesses going. I can tell you starting with Adam at Broadway Baptist Church and Megan at first Christian church, ‘Abraham, what can we do?’ We started to mobile grocery store. Talking is okay. But as you get finished talking, you need to do some action.”
“Gene it’s gonna sound crazy. But when people want to talk, and pretend they want to talk, you tell them your story. They tell you their story. And at the end of both stories, and doesn’t change. After you got my story, you still got your story, it’s nothing change. So why should I didn’t talk about all these old war stories? What can we sit down together and plan and do something to help the less fortunate? Or the elderly? So that’s how I see it. More than just sit down just to talk, just to be talking. Sit down and plan action of how we can help each other out.”
Williams was born in Phenix City, Alabama in 1947. At that time, Blacks in Alabama had to use separate water fountains and bathrooms from white people. They had to ride in the back of public buses and sit in separate parts of restaurants from whites. Abraham says that changed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He told me what it was like, when he was attending Alabama A&M University in Huntsville.
“I guess I’m very fortunate,” said Williams, “because I was in Alabama A&M in 1968, when Martin Luther King got killed April 4, 1960 and I remember I was in the library. And they said King had been killed and so we didn’t know what to do. So we got together. And we marched downtown Huntsville, probably the scariest time of my life. We got downtown, and when we got there, we looked up and all on the buildings there was guys with guns pointed at us know. We was afraid but you really wasn’t afraid. And from that, I think it inspired me to do more. We got back to the campus and the next day we organized and we helped integrate schools up in Huntsville, Alabama. The schools weren’t integrated in Alabama until 1971. So I had a chance to do a lot of marches, a lot of sit-ins, and all those things while I was in college.”
As he got older, Abraham became the first Black housing manager in Phenix City, Alabama, where he created a welfare to work program, an after-school program, and athletic programs for the city’s Black youth. He knows what works.
“Blacks got to come back to the hood. They got to come back to the poor end of town and give back more. Whites gonna have to start giving better jobs. You know we brag about how many jobs here but how many jobs is it for professionals, white collars and bankers and different professions? A kid can go off to school but they have to leave here because there’s no opportunity for them. And once you speak up, you’re labeled as a militant. And you’re not a militant, you just want to do what’s right.”
And Williams has this advice about how to make things better for all of us.
“Bowling Green is a great place to live. Do we have problems? Yes, we have problems. Poor blacks have problems, poor whites have problems, all of us. But if we stop fighting each other, and sit down at the table and say, ‘Hey, what project can we work on right now with with the virus?’ We need each other. Right now without kids, can I go back to school, we need each other. Either we’re gonna help these kids now, or for the rest of their lives, they’re gonna be way behind two or three years. So now’s the time to stop talking and plan of action. Sit down with the school system. Sit down with the police department. Let’s come up with some plan of action so our kids will stop hurting each other and using drugs.”
If you would like to help make life better for all of us, you can call Abraham Williams at the Housing Authority of Bowling Green. That number is 270-843-6071.
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