June 14 wasn’t just another day at John Taylor Williams. It was the Monday after school closed on Friday, the last day of school in the last year of operation as a middle school.
Shortly after noon, Assistant Principal Angela Grant called the staff to lunch with an atypical verbal flourish, exhorting them over the PA system to partake in “a delicious, nutritious and fabulous lunch.” As the staff lined up in the cafeteria for lasagna, salad and bread sticks, the mood was a little subdued.
“I guess that the name John Taylor Williams will be gone is kind of sad,” said Jamil Steele, an art teacher. “This school is historic. Next year would have been our 50th year.”
Steele knows more than many people do about Dr. John Taylor Williams because he painted a portrait of the late 19th-century African-American that hangs in the school lobby. Next to it hangs a brief history of Williams.
He was a prominent figure in the history of African-Americans in Charlotte – one of the first three black doctors licensed in North Carolina, an educator , a businessman and a diplomat who broke barriers for African-Americans with his success.
Williams was born in 1859 to a free black man who operated a successful lumber business in Cumberland County. The family later moved to Harnett County and Williams’ father hired a white widow as a governess for the 12 Williams children.
Williams trained as a teacher at Howard Normal College (now Fayetteville State University), according to accounts in the Charlotte Observer.
In 1882, he came to Charlotte and was among the faculty members who founded the first public school for black children, the Myers Street School. He taught there for three years, then entered Shaw University’s Leonard Medical School in Raleigh. In 1886, he returned to Charlotte.
Williams was elected to the city’s Board of Aldermen in 1889 and 1891. He helped found the Grace A.M.E. Zion Church on South Brevard near his home, and was a trustee of A.M.E. Zion Publishing Co.
President William McKinley appointed him to represent America in what is now Sierra Leone, making Williams one of the nation’s first black diplomats. In June of 1928, he suffered a stroke during services at Grace A.M.E. Zion and died later that evening.
One of two schools built in 1962 was named for him, opening as a junior high with 32 teachers. Over time, John Taylor Williams Junior High evolved into J. T. Williams Middle school – a name change rolled back by Dr. Ronald S. Dixon when he became principal at the school three years ago.
“It had become just ‘J.T.’ We wanted everybody to know there was a prominent man named John Taylor Williams,” Dixon recalled during the staff lunch. “What he was able to accomplish was phenomenal. We wanted to associate the name of the school with the man and his achievements.”
The legacy is likely to live on, despite the closing of the school – not least in the memories of graduates. One of them, Tracey Keitt, completed the International Baccalaureate program at John Taylor Williams in 2001. After high school, he graduated from Queens University and returned to John Taylor Williams to teach Spanish.
The school he left in 2001 is not the school he taught in last year, he says ruefully. “I enjoyed the diversity when I was here,” he recalls. The school drew students from north and south county as well as the neighborhood. Keitt plans to move to South America next year and continue teaching there.
The school will be used next year by CMS but how has not been announced. The school will not be leased, unlike some other schools being closed, and it is likely that the name will be retained in its next incarnation in the district.
That could help keep the legacy of John Taylor Williams alive in Charlotte.
The last school year also honored the legacy of Williams, who began as an educator – and Dixon suggested that the school ended on an appropriately high note.
“We were committed to keeping the focus on instruction.”