Black Publisher Isiah “Ike” Williams: Man who Loved, Lived and Made History
By Starla Vaughns Cherin
Special to the NNPA from the Florida Courier
A man who loved history, lived history and made history, Isiah “Ike” Jesse Williams felt so deeply about his community and fellow man that he spent his life helping others. Even the Jacksonville native’s birth on Sept. 27, 1931 was a help to his parents. His mother allowed her sister Helen to adopt him. Helen and her husband, Isiah, could not have children. Raising Isiah became the joy of their lives. Although poor, the two gave young Isiah the best in education, sending him to Fessenden Academy, a private school in Ocala, Fla.
At age 13, the senior Isiah was killed in an industrial accident. Then it was just young Isiah and his adopted mother Helen, who instilled in him a thirst for knowledge and a love of reading. A family story goes that the lilt of her voice when she said his name sounded like a song – it was that beautiful.
The story of Isiah Williams’ beginnings and the giant of a man he became was retold eloquently by his widow, Marilyn Wilkerson-Williams, to the Florida Courier. Williams, who went on to become an attorney, civil rights leader and the publisher of the Jacksonville Advocate, died Nov. 25 at 78. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago.
Popular student at Edward Waters
Williams graduated from Edward Waters College and Florida Memorial College before earning his juris doctorate degree at Florida A&M University; all three are historically Black colleges or universities. He also received a master’s degree from Brooklyn Law School, and in the 1960s studied at the New School for Social Research and Xavier Institute of Labor Relations, both in New York City. He also was in the Army and served in Korea.
“He went to Edward Waters College on a football scholarship. He was very popular. At least 90 percent of the time, he was always class president because everyone knew he was brilliant and how smart he was,” Wilkerson-Williams, his wife of 10 years, told the Florida Courier this week.
“We went to the opening of the new Florida A&M University Law School,” she recalls. “A man walked up to me and told me when he and Isiah were in college, he wanted to run for class president. Everyone warned him not to run against Ike. The man said, ‘He trampled me and I am still mad about it.’ This man was 75 years old.”
Close friend of Malcolm X
Williams stayed in New York City practicing law for 10 years. Active in the civil rights movement there, he was an attorney for the Black Panthers and became friends with Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X.
Often while in New York after coming home from a party he would stop by Malcolm’s house at 2 a.m. and talk to sun up. The day of Malcolm X’s assassination, Williams ran across the street to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, got a gurney, picked Malcolm up, put him on the gurney, and wheeled him back across the street to the hospital. Williams was one of the pallbearers at Malcolm’s funeral.
Upon returning to Florida in the 1970s, Williams founded both the Jacksonville Advocate and the Northeast Florida Advocate newspapers. Both newspapers were famous for sharing positive news about African-American accomplishments, events and global issues. Williams also served as publisher emeritus of the People’s Advocate newspaper that he, his wife, and two partners purchased two years ago and published on a monthly schedule.
Nothing but positive news
“The only Black paper in Jacksonville then was the Florida Star, but Isiah wanted to highlight and celebrate the achievements of Black people; for 30 years he printed nothing but positive news about Blacks,” his wife noted.
“One of his favorite things to do was discuss and debate Black history. He was a Black History instructor at Florida Community College. He thought it was essential that people remembered their heritage, where they came from, their ancestors and the people that fought for their rights,” Wilkerson-Williams added.
He was a founding member of the National Business League and its first president, helping Black businesses be established and understand there is strength in numbers.
Helped to preserve Black history
A union organizer, Isiah Williams also helped form the Brotherhood of Black Firefighters.
“When Jacksonville hired the first Black firefighters, he went to visit them every Friday, urging them to organize and telling them there is strength in numbers. At first they said, ‘ Oh, here comes Mr. Williams.’ They honored him the earlier part of this year,” Wilkerson-Williams said.
Williams also valued preserving the history of the African-American community. He was an early member of the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission and organized the Joseph E. Lee Library-Museum, which used to be housed on East 17th Street, near where its namesake had lived. Lee, Jacksonville’s first Black lawyer and the third in Florida, became the city’s first Black municipal judge in 1888.
Camilla Perkins Thompson, also a historian of Jacksonville’s African-American community, said Williams was the driving force in the organizing of a local chapter of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, which still meets regularly.
“Ike was long an advocate for studying our history,” Thompson said. “The contents of the Lee Library-Museum have been disbursed among the Jacksonville Public Library, the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum and a library in St. Augustine,” she said.
Williams was the recipient of countless awards during his life, the latest being the National Whitney M. Young Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him in November by the Jacksonville Urban League. He also was the recipient of Florida’s Onyx Award in Communications in 2005.
Gave freely to those in need
Wilkerson-Williams remembers her husband’s generosity and how he helped many in need.
“He was a workaholic and his desire was to die at his desk working. He never cared about money. So many people owed him money, but he wanted to always do the right thing no matter what it took.
“For example, a community member got into trouble and he wanted to help them. They came to the office every week and he would give them $500. He said this community person was deserving and they needed help. I asked, ‘Why is this person here every Friday as if they are collecting a paycheck?’ This went on for three months.
“As long as he had it, he felt he needed to help people. He didn’t care if he didn’t have a new suit or anything for himself.”
Along with his wife, Williams is survived by a daughter, Helen Rogers of Fayetteville, N.C.; four sons, Rodney Williams and Isiah Williams IV, both of Jacksonville; Ira Marche of Dover, Del.; and Mark Benson of Washington, D.C.; a sister, Pearl Davis of Jacksonville; a brother, Clark Edwards of Oakland, Calif.; and three grandchildren.
Funeral services were held Dec. 4 at St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Jacksonville.
Memorial contributions can be made in Isiah Williams’ name to the Alzheimer’s Association Central and North Florida Chapter, 378 Center Pointe Circle, Suite 1280, Altamonte Springs, Fla. 32701.