There were 126,298 black Americans with Williams as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 26% of the total number with that name in the country.
This article looks at:
- 19th and early 20th-century black census numbers for the name
- notable African American people named Williams
- early black military records and how to find them
Williams Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. It was left blank to denote white, b for black, or m for mulatto. The third term is the language of the time. I will use mixed in the rest of this article.
If you are researching your black Williams ancestors in census archives, be sure to search under both categories. Do not rely on the census taker choosing the right category.
1850 Federal Census
There were 1,145 people named Williams who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 428 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, these are free citizens.
There was a total of 57,784 free citizens named Williams that year.
1860 Federal Census
The 1860 federal census recorded 1,009 people named Williams as black, and 611 as mixed.
That is out of a total of 69,459 free citizens.
Of course, census-taking would change after the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first after the Civil War and emancipation. At last, all African Americans are included.
Those who were omitted in 1860 because they were enslaved are now in this census. Here are the numbers.
15,657 people named Williams were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 2,602 as mixed.
The increase is clear. The overall total (all Americans) was 100,665.
The 1880 census recorded 21,181 as black and 3,850 as mixed out of a total of 121,625.
Now we jump to the end of the 19th century – or the beginning of the 20th.
Williams In The 1900 And 1940 Census
In 1900, the mixed category was dropped. However, not all enumerators followed those instructions. I have found a small number of records where “m” was still used in the box for color.
I will focus here on the black numbers.
The 1900 census recorded 34,413 people named Williams as black within a total of 166,645.
There were 48,537 people named Williams recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 256,442.
Historic Black Figures
Here are some notable African Americans in history who bore the last name of Williams.
George Washington Williams
- Born: 1849
- Died: 1891
- From: Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania
George Washington Williams fought in the Civil War, became a Baptist minister, and qualified as a lawyer. He served one term in the Ohio State Legislature from 1880-81.
He published a ground-breaking history of African Americans in 1882.
Williams traveled to the Congo and was appalled by the conditions imposed by the Belgians on the native Congolese. His open letter to King Leopold II included the first use of the term “crimes against humanity”.
Fannie Barrier Williams
From: Brockport, New York
Fannie Barrier had a relatively comfortable upbringing in New York with a father who was a prosperous black businessman. When she moved to Missouri to teach, she was appalled by the discrimination she encountered.
When Fannie married Samuel Williams, the couple settled in Chicago circa 1888. Fannie established herself as an accomplished portrait artist and became heavily involved in women’s organizations. One of her friends and mentors was the older philanthropist, Mary Richardson Jones.
Williams campaigned for female health and hygiene, and also for voting rights. She worked hard to ensure that black interests were represented in major events such as the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Fannie was one of three black women to speak at the exposition. She called for all women to unite to pursue their rights. One of the other women was Fanny Jackson Coppin.
Fannie was a co-founder of the NAACP and also helped establish Provident Hospital in 1891. The main founder was Daniel Williams (no relation), whom I’ll cover next.
Daniel Hale Williams
From: Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
Daniel Williams was first a shoemaker’s apprentice and then opened a barbershop in Wisconsin with his sister. He struck up a friendship with a doctor and decided to study medicine in Chicago. He opened a medical practice in 1883.
Black doctors were prohibited from working in private hospitals at that time. Williams garnered support from Chicago’s prosperous black residents to establish an integrated hospital. Fannie Williams (previous section) was one of his main supporters.
Williams opened Provident Hospital in 1891 to improve the health care for African Americans in Chicago. The hospital also provided training to black doctors and nurses.
Daniel Williams is perhaps best known for being one of first doctors to perform heart surgery. A patient arrived into Provident Hospital in 1893 who had a stab wound to the heart. Williams performed what’s known as “pericardium surgery” and successfully healed the wound.
- Born: 1825
- From: Cecil County, Maryland
James Williams fled from Maryland to freedom in Pennsylvania with the extensive help of the Underground Railroad. He was thirteen at the start of his journey.
His account of what happened, Life And Adventures Of James Williams, was published in 1873.
The Underground Railroad was a vast network of secret routes and safe houses organized by many abolitionists and rights activists. It helped thousands of enslaved people escape from the South.
Williams In Black Military Records
You may be surprised at the amount of genealogy information available from military records.
Here are some examples of the Williams surname from three different military services:
- Buffalo soldiers
- Black civil war sailors
- Tuskegee Airmen
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest entries for Williams was in 1867.
Charles Williams was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in 1867 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
One of the last entries was in 1915. Henry Williams was a Wagoner in the Tenth Cavalary that year.
If you want to do your own research, there is a free index of these military records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for the surname concerned Joseph Williams from Long Island, New York. He enlisted in 1861 aged 41.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Barber. His naval rank (or rating) was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted in 1864. Augustus was aged 16 and was from New Orleans, Louisiana.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer. His naval rank was 1st Class Boy.
“1st Class Boy” was the rank given to young men under eighteen.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
William Williams came from New London, Ohio. He trained as a bomber pilot and graduated as a Flight Officer in 1944.
Robert Williams graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Tuskegee Institute in 1944. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Robert was from Ottumwa, Iowa.
His combat credits said:
Downed 2 FW-190s on March 31, 1945
This means that he shot down two planes in a single day of combat.