Editor’s note: My brother, James E. Williams Jr., penned these thoughts earlier this year during commemorative events marking the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, our hometown.
By James E. Williams Jr.
What is the secret to your success? That’s the question I am frequently asked as an entrepreneur.
First, I work seven days a week! Hard work does pay off. I also study the latest trends in my industry. I’m a McDonald’s owner-operator in the St. Louis metropolitan region. I network constantly with everyone from CEO’s to everyday people. I put customers first, always.
But as a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, the recent commemorative events marking the city’s 1917 race riot remind me of yet another factor contributing to my success.
That factor rings in my ear much like the sound of the bell at Truelight Baptist Church in East St. Louis, which warned residents of imminent harm during that bloody riot.
The East St. Louis riot was one of the worst of the 20th century, with estimates ranging up to 250 African-American deaths, though the official death count was 39 blacks and nine whites. Without a doubt, hundreds of homes owned by blacks were burned to the ground. A U.S. Congressional investigation found that police ignored victims’ pleas for help. Black families fled by the thousands across the Eads Bridge to safety.
Truelight pastor the Rev. Timothy J. Chambers wisely reflected, “That bell wasn’t rung just for the members of Truelight, that bell was rung for an entire city,” adding, “Because of this religious institution, lives were saved.”
And that’s the connection to my success. I’m standing on the shoulders of resilient East St. Louis citizens. Their story is my story. I am who I am, because of who they are. I am a son of East St. Louis. They represent succeeding generations of riot survivors, and others who came later. They refuse to give up. And so do I, whether in business or in any other arena.
Today, East St. Louis residents continue to ring the bell, in response to economic, political, and social challenges. That was clear through the recent 100th anniversary commemorative events. In a wide array of activities, residents sought to bring attention to the city’s needs.
We salute SIUE history professor Rev. Joseph Brown, and historian Anne Walker, for their excellent organization of these anniversary events. Brown served as chairman of a commission which planned anniversary events; and Walker, also a commission member, organized the stunning signature event, a processional from downtown East St. Louis to the Eads Bridge state line on July 2, 2017.
The bell rang symbolically through the artistry of Edna Patterson Petty. Her striking quilt, featuring newspaper articles and images, showed the pain and suffering of riot victims. It’s displayed at the St. Clair County Courthouse.
East St. Louis Poet Laureate Eugene B. Redmond, and the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club, rang the bell with an ensemble performance about the 1917 riot, employing the renowned Kwansaba poetic form created by Redmond.
Washington University professor Michael Allen, and SIUE professor Dr. Andrew Theising, rang the bell when they led a public discussion of factors leading to the riot and its connections to current events.
The bell continues to ring through speeches by East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who work to heal racial divides and bridge socio-economic chasms.
In the business arena, Ralph Korte, founder and chairman of the Korte Company, contributes to numerous foundations and boards, and serves as a mentor to many. The bell also rings with mentorship I’ve received from McDonald owner/operators such as Judson Pickard, Dick Bold, and numerous others across the country.
The late Charles H. Lawson III, East St. Louis NAACP president and a fearless advocate for justice; the late Clyde Jordan, publisher of the Monitor newspaper; the late Marian E. Officer of Officer Funeral Home, and the late Frances Nash Terrell of Nash Funeral Home, rang the bell, as do succeeding generations of those families. In 1917, Nash Funeral Home owners were credited with saving lives of East St. Louis riot victims by transporting them across the Eads Bridge.
We hear the bell from afar too. East St. Louis is the launching pad for so many. Its sons and daughters are scattered widely.
The Hudlin brothers, Reginald and Warrington Hudlin of Hollywood film fame, grew up in East St. Louis. They are great-great-grandsons of Peter and Nancy Hudlin, who helped slaves escape in the Underground Railroad. Reginald was a producer of the 2012 film, Django Unchained.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee was the first American to win the Olympic gold for the long jump, and ultimately earned three gold medals during her athletic career.
Today, the Assistant General Manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team is Noah Croom, the son of the late James W. Croom Sr. who was principal of Jackson Elementary School in East St. Louis. Legions of others also rang the bell for succeeding generations.
One of my earliest mentors was Dr. Ben Davis, the first African-American McDonald’s owner/operator in East St. Louis. He hired me to work on the front counter of his store selling hamburgers as a teenager. The lessons I learned there still serve me well today.
The bell rang powerfully in my parents’ home growing up.
My Dad, the late Attorney James E. Williams Sr., responded to a citizens’ call for an unprecedented grassroots campaign, and in 1971 he became the city’s first African-American mayor. Earlier, he launched the St. Clair County Legal Aid Society to offer free legal advice and services to citizens.
My mother, Mrs. Lillian Williams, rang the bell as an indefatigable first grade teacher at Dunbar Elementary in East St. Louis, and later as a science teacher whose students won top science competitions. She won the Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching.
At Truelight Baptist Church, the late pastor Henry Nicholson rang the bell each Sunday with sermons that encouraged congregants to step out of their comfort zones. The current pastor, Rev. Chambers, continues that tradition.
In the neighborhood of East St. Louis where I grew up, Mrs. Marie Tarvin rang the bell each morning as she scurried to work at the Obear Nester Glass Company. When she returned in the evening, she would admonish neighborhood children to study hard and to set our sights on college. Countless other adults did the same.
This spirit lives on. It’s visionary. It’s buoyant. It’s resilient.
That’s why East St. Louis residents led that processional in honor of the 1917 race riot victims. We recognize that the deeper socio-economic wounds have not healed. But we learn from history. As my father would often say: “There is that intangible quality called INSPIRATION which comes from a pride developed by HERITAGE.”
I am grateful to be a son of East St. Louis, Illinois. The message is that the story isn’t over. Our narrative is still being written. We will not give up! We will work together to create better lives for future generations.
James E. Williams Jr. is the president of Estel Foods Inc., and the owner-operator of McDonald’s franchises in the metropolitan St. Louis region. He and his wife, Janet, have two children, Casi and Tre.