Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 23, 2013

Dedicated builder worked to help young people attain their goals

BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

WELCH — Seventeenth Century common law holds that “an Englishman’s home is his castle,” and that phrase can readily apply to the Beech Street home of Christine and Ellis Ray Williams. With scant level land to build upon, many homes in McDowell County are situated on hillsides that are so steep that visitors who are unfamiliar with the area wonder about how the builders were able to erect the structures.

“It took me about a year to get in here because I was teaching while I was building,” Ray Williams, 92, said during an interview last week in the living room of his home. “The first meal we had in here was on Thanksgiving and we ate in the kitchen over there. The table we used was an old pie board held up with two saw horses, but that was out first meal. It was in the 1950s, but I can’t remember exactly what year that was.”

Williams was the youngest of seven children born to the Reverend William Williams and Mattie Williams from Newberry, S.C. The Williams family moved to the Pinch-back section of Main Gary in 1928 to take advantage of coal mining jobs and the excellent secondary schools for the children of African American coal miners.

“McDowell County was one of the best places in the world for African American children to get a good education with those five high schools in the county,” Williams said. During segregation, McDowell County operated five high schools for black students including Excelsior near War, Gary District in Gary, Kimball, Northfork and Elkhorn Elks at Upland. “For all I have accomplished in life, I feel obligated to my parents because they sacrificed so much to bring the family here. I also feel obligated to the schools of McDowell County for my education.”

As he grew up in Gary, Williams found he enjoyed working on just about everything. He started working in the mines when he was still in high school at Gary District.

“I worked in the summers when I started, but I wanted to make more money so I asked to work underground. I wanted to make enough money to go to college. All my life, I’ve been the kind of a person who always wanted to work and save a few pennies.”

Williams graduated from high school in 1940, and went to West Virginia State (then) College briefly, but came back to Bluefield State College “because of my sweetheart,” he said of his wife, Christine (Neal) Williams. “My wife grew up here in Welch on the street right up behind our home,” he said. “We lived with her parents while I was building this home.” Ray and Christine met on New Year’s Eve, 1936-’37, and got married in 1943 while he was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., and preparing to head overseas.

At BSC, Williams studied and played offensive left guard and linebacker for the Big Blues. “I was the pulling guard,” he said. “I have had two hip replacements to show for it,” he said with a smile. Williams lettered in 1940, ‘41 and ‘42, when he was co-captain.

Williams paused his college education in 1942 and volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. “I didn’t want to wait and get drafted,” he said. After he completed basic and advanced training, Williams was assigned to serve as the radio operator on a forward observation crew in the 777th Field Artillery Battalion with the 9th Army. The battalion entered France in October 1945, and were one of the first two African American units to cross the Rhine River into Germany.

“We were there during the Battle of the Bulge,” he said. “One of the other black outfits got cut off behind enemy lines and a Belgian family took 11 of them in to keep them safe. One of their neighbors told the Germans where they were hiding. They captured all 11 of them, tortured them and killed them.”

Williams said that the 777th artillery crew he was with fired an M40 recoilless rifle anti-tank weapon that fired 105 millimeter rounds. “It was a new gun,” he said. “We moved to the flank of the bulge. I was up with the infantry to watch where the rounds landed. One minute I was watching the field and the next minute there would be bombs and shells landing all around our position. We saw the guns shooting right over our heads to soften up the Germans. I’ve seen them stacking up the dead.”

Williams said that one of the post-war challenges for black soldiers in a segregated U.S. Army — most of whom were not deployed in forward combat units, but instead, were used in transportation units or other non-combat roles — was the lack of black leaders. “Our non-coms were black, but all of our commissioned officers were white. Some of them were nice, but others could be mean to us. After the war, not many of us got together for reunions like the white soldiers.

“I played with white kids all of my life when I was growing up in Gary,” he said. “This was different.” Still, seeing the beauty of Europe as his unit traveled through Germany into France still remains in his memories. “I wouldn’t change that experience for anything in the world,” he said. “Crossing the Danube River I could see the water that was just as clear as it could be. These were places I had read about, but never thought I would see.”

The unit was in Marseilles, France for a time before boarding a ship for the Atlantic crossing. “I saw the Rock of Gibraltar and the northern coast of Africa.” Unfortunately, Williams suffered from a bad case of sea-sickness, and was flat on his back for the 11-day voyage from Marseilles to Panama.

“I didn’t get seasick on the way over,” he said. “Our battalion came back home in two ships. They were sending us through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific Theater. The first ship was in the canal, and we were waiting to go when the war ended. They sent us up to Hampton Roads.” Still seasick, Williams asked to go home. They gave me my honorable discharge in November 1945.

“When I got home, I went straight back to the coal mines and stayed there until the second semester at Bluefield State ended,” Williams said. “I only needed six more hours to graduate, but I had a year of football eligibility left and I wanted to play.” Williams was captain of the 1946 football Big Blues.

After he completed his education, Williams went to Gary District and taught at the beginning of 1947. “The next summer, I went back to the coal mines,” he said. “I planned to work five years, save all my money and go to law school. The third year I was there, the miners started striking all the time. After one long break, I went back in the mines and there was so much water in there that you couldn’t work.

“I went to the boss to complain, but he said he couldn’t do anything about it and I needed to go back to work,” Williams said. That was 1952. He said that he asked the boss what he would do if he decided to quit, and he said that the boss said he couldn’t quit because he couldn’t do any better than he could. “That was my last day in the mines,” he said. “After that, I went to West Virginia University in Morgantown.”

During the next two and a half years, Williams earned a masters degree in Sociology and Industrial Education. “WVU wasn’t like what it is today,” he said. “The building where we had Industrial Education classes was old and not in good shape, and I took classes at Morgantown High School and at Clay Battelle.” Williams was proud to show two pieces of pottery  — an exquisite pitcher and a lamp — that he made in a pottery class at Clay Battelle.

“You need to set an example in life,” he said. “My kids all do the same thing. They love working with things. All seven of our children are college graduates and all have had successful careers.” He said that he probably worked on about 100 houses in Welch. “I have enough tools that I could start right now and build a house.” He said that Ed Watkins and Jack Caffrey helped him a great deal in understanding the engineering behind building a solid structure.

After he finished at WVU, Williams was accepted at a law school in Missouri, but his wife wanted him to come home  ... and he did. “I taught a class at Conley High School in Mullens and set up a shop there. I loved it there,” he said. He left Wyoming County during integration and taught at Welch-Dunbar School where he coached and taught English.

“I used to run up all of those steps,” he said. “I coached basketball and we beat everyone we played.” After all the county schools were integrated, McDowell County Schools made Welch-Dunbar a school for troubled students. “It was for both black and white kids,” he said.

“After that, they tried to send me to Welch High School to teach mathematics,” he said. “I studied mathematics, and I did well in algebra, but mathematics is always growing and there are some brilliant students who will test you.” Instead, Williams taught at Kimball High School, and Gary Coal Diggers where he taught English Literature. In the meantime, Williams earned a certificate of Advanced Studies in Education from Virginia Tech.

“They sent me to Elkhorn Junior High School to serve as principal,” he said. “We had good basketball teams up there with the students who had come from the old Elkhorn and Elkhorn Elks schools,” he said. “All of those basketball players who went to Northfork High School and won all of those state championships won junior high championships with us first.”

The Northfork High School Blue Demons won a national record eight consecutive men’s state basketball tournaments from 1974-1981, along with titles in 1971 and 1984. Williams retired from education in 1988 after serving as principal at Elkhorn Junior High School for 21 years.

Along with helping students meet their academic demands, Williams officiated basketball and football , was a mining instructor with the U.S. Department of the Interior, served as an instructor of Christian Education through the Southern Baptist Seminary Extension and worked as a Title I Home Improvement Contractor for Sears.

“We have had five black generals from McDowell County,” Williams said. “The one thing that this county and this state has done was to have those five black high schools. This county is starting to recognize the importance of the education we received as young people.”

Williams has received many honors for his tireless efforts to serve the community. Ray and Christine Williams have been married for 70 years. In addition to their seven children, they have 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com