Williams As An African American Last Name

There were 774,920 black Americans with Williams as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 48% 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

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.

That’s why I’m not using the numbers from this census as it isn’t representative. However, if your ancestor was free before emancipation, you should research this year. Here’s a tip:

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 (mixed in modern terms). 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.

Williams After The Civil War

1865 newly freed family in Richmond, Virginia

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.

70,696 people named Williams were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 9,150 as mixed.

The overall total (all Americans) was 235,049.

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 187,548 people named Williams as black within a total of 465,446.

There were 274,627 people named Williams recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 740,926.

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

Born: 1855
Died: 1944
From: Brockport, New York

Fannie Barrier Williams

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

Born: 1856
Died: 1931
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.

Williams was one of only two African Americans who graduated from Chicago’s Medical College in 1863. The other was James Henderson. They were the first two black medical graduates from the college.

Williams opened a medical practice in 1883. Black doctors were prohibited from working in private hospitals at that time. So, 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.

Other Early Doctors

Here are some other notable black doctors in the 19th and early 20th century:

James Williams

  • 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

Buffalo Soldiers

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.

Joseph Williams

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.

Augustus Williams

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.

Tuskegee Airmen

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.