By Maury York
John H. Williamson as he appeared during the
1876-77 legislative session
John H. Williamson's determination to learn how to read and write prepared him for a life of service to his county and state. Williamson was born on October 3, 1844, to slave parents who belonged to General John Napier Williamson of Covington, Georgia. After General Williamson died in 1857, his widow, Temperance Perry Williamson, a native of Franklin County, moved to Louisburg, bringing John and his parents with her. With the assistance of her family, Mrs. Williamson built a modest Greek Revial-style cottage facing Cedar Street and farmed a tract of land that stretched behind the house to Fox Swamp.
According to Franklin County historian Edward Hill Davis, John Williamson once recorded in a diary how he achieved literacy: "I had a Webster's blue back speller and was advised by Mrs. Shaw to get the Angell's series. She started me off in the first book and in one week I could spell any word and read any line in it. And then the second and third and on until in 6 months I had mastered the series of five. At this time Mr. Mack Shaw, then a boy of 10, was attending school at the Academy. He generally placed his books on the bureau on going to bed-Webster's dictionary and Morse's geography, and I would slip them out to the wood house to read and return. It was one of my duties to play with him and as he would go over his lessons I would go with him. So in this way I got all he had learned."
Title page of
Minutes of the Freedmen's
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Williamson was better prepared than many to represent the people of Franklin County. At this time and for years to come, blacks comprised a majority of the population of the county and of Louisburg, which in 1870 had 750 inhabitants. Illiteracy was a widespread condition. Williamson attended freedmen's conventions held in 1865 and 1866 in Raleigh, where delegates advocated equal rights for African Americans. He served as a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1868, which drafted a remarkably progressive new constitution for the state. He represented Franklin County in the North Carolina House of Representatives for six terms between 1868 and 1887, frequently participating in spirited debates. The Republican Party chose him to attend three of its national conventions. According to historian J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, author of Reconstruction in North Carolina, Williamson was the "ablest representative of his race" in the North Carolina General Assembly during the period.
Williamson died on January 9, 1911, and was buried in the African American cemetery located on Mineral Springs Road in Louisburg.
Recently, students in HIS 221 (North Carolina history) at Louisburg College have explored original documents, including census records, deeds, and issues of newspapers that Williamson edited. Their findings shed new light on Williamson's life and on the scope of his local and state service. The students will present their findings at a lecture on Monday, December 2, at 7:30 p.m. in Louisburg College's Norris Theatre. The event is free, and the public is cordially invited to attend.
Published in The Franklin Times on November 28, 2013.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at email@example.com. He wishes to thank Adair Werner, Dru York, and the students of HIS 221 at Louisburg College for their research assistance.
Photo credits: John H. Williamson, courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.
Minutes of the Freedmen's Convention, 1866, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.