Trailblazing African American Williams passes away at 94

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George Williams was city’s first African-American cop, county’s first African-American jailer, and nation’s first African-American Greyhound bus station owner

By Josh Claywell



The day George Williams passed away, a tear ran down his cheek.

Just over a year after being diagnosed with a drug-resistant urinary tract infection, Williams’ battle was over. He passed away last Friday evening at the age of 94, leaving behind a life well lived.

But like he did with everything life threw his way, Williams fought to the end. That’s just the man he was, his second wife, Celia, said Tuesday afternoon.

“He fought that so hard,” Celia said of George’s illness. “He was not going to die. Just like everything else, he met it head on. He didn’t want to die when he died. They say some people die with a smile; he died with a tear. And it was because he lost the fight.”

And what a fight it was.

George was a trailblazer for the black community and all Taylor County citizens, choosing not to view things as black and white. He instead treated people with the utmost respect no matter the circumstances.

He was never one to back down from anything, be it during his time as a city police officer or serving as the county jailer, or even as the owner-operator of the town’s Greyhound Bus Station.

Everyone around town respected and liked him. He was a man of the people, never choosing sides.

George was a trailblazer, a beacon of hope during uncertain times in the city and county.

“He was the guy out front,” Celia said. “He was the guy that made the good impressions. He was the guy that went out and did all that stuff.”

George always dreamed of doing bigger and better things throughout his life, fighting for everything he earned. He dropped out of school at the age of 8, then worked with his father, John, on their family farm. He also spent time working on the Kendall family farm, but always kept an eye on the future.

As a little boy, George and his father would go into town and get gas from Bradley Tarter. George would always ask Tarter if, when he was older, he could come and work at the service station. Years later, George went back to the station and asked Tarter if he could start working for him. Tarter said yes.

After Tarter passed away, George took over as owner of the service station in 1957. He was the first African-American to own a business in Campbellsville.

In the 1960s, he became the first black to own a Greyhound Bus Station in the United States. Celia recalled a story George told her of two gentlemen – one from Ohio, the other from Mississippi – paying George a visit one day.

“He had to apply to take over the Greyhound station. When he did, they sent these people to the station. It was right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. They sent one from Cleveland or Columbus, I can’t remember which, and then one came up from Mississippi,” she said. “They were two white guys in suits and they wanted to talk to Mr. Williams. He said, ‘I am Mr. Williams.’ He didn’t know what they were gonna do. Their expression was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ They told him they wanted some references, and he told them to walk around town and just ask any of the business owners. They walked around town and talked to the business owners and then came back. They said ‘We’ve never had such recommendations from people before, so we’re gonna let you be the owner-operator of the bus station.’”

Then, in 1970, came another career change.

While pumping gas at his service station in downtown Campbellsville, a drunken driver hit a light pole. According to a story in the Central Kentucky News-Journal about the wreck, George got frustrated when a police officer didn’t come to investigate. As the story goes, George walked across the street to the police station and asked the dispatcher to send a cop to the scene – but every officer on duty was tied up elsewhere.

George walked off, telling the dispatcher he’d take care of it himself. A day later, the dispatcher showed up at the gas station and encouraged George to apply for a position at the police department. The dispatcher left an application with George, which he filled out later that evening. Former Mayor Robert L. Miller soon offered George a job. George was in his mid-40s at the time, but that didn’t matter.

“He was one of those people that you could depend on no matter what,” former Mayor Brenda Allen said. “He was always there, always did his job. People respected him and he was an awesome man. That’s all I can say. I just hated to see him go and be sick. He was really an awesome person and we were lucky to know him.

“He’ll be missed a lot. You’re gonna sit here and see a lot of people come in and pay their respects, because everybody respected him. He was a good person and he did the best he could. He was a really good person.”

David DeMers, who later became one of George’s step-sons, said George always knew where everybody was supposed to be.

If a kid was in a part of town they shouldn’t, George would tell them to go home.

“He knew everybody in town,” DeMers said. “He would roll up on you and ask you what you were doing. He knew where you belonged, he knew which part of town you lived in. He would challenge you: ‘What are you doing over here? Don’t make me go by your house and tell your mother where I found you.’ This was back in the day when it was real community policing, and that’s the way the police station was. He just embodied that. They knew ya, they knew where you were supposed to be and they knew when you weren’t supposed to be somewhere.

“George was just that guy. He was the one police officer I knew in town. I won’t tell you he ever threw me in the back of a car, because he didn’t, but every couple of weeks he’d run into me in a part of a town I probably shouldn’t have wandered over to. Just knowing that somebody always had their eyes on me was just always a good feeling. Growing up in a town like this, it was always perfect like that. That’s what you want. You want somebody to know where you are; your mom wants to know somebody knows where you are.”

After 17 years as a police officer, George wanted another change – this time as an elected official.

He ran for county jailer in 1986, running against 15 white candidates. George won the position and served until 1991, when the jail closed.

“You’re not gonna find anybody that didn’t like him, even the prisoners that he locked up,” Celia said. “He was the most likeable person that anybody ever met. He was honest to a fault, completely honest. He really is a trailblazer for black people. He believed and he did it. Life said, ‘You can’t ever win jailer. What makes you think you can be jailer?’

“I worked in the prison system for several years, and never once heard a bad story about him. The prisoners liked him. He wouldn’t serve food in the jail that he wouldn’t eat himself. He treated them like people who just made a bad mistake. They’re gonna have to serve the consequences of that mistake, but he would never treat them less than human. He tried to see the good in people, no matter what.”

Along the way, George was also a delivery driver for the News-Journal for 32 years. He did that part-time and retired from that job in 2000.

George’s first wife, Allene, passed away in 1989. He met Celia in 1983, when she began helping him in an adult literacy program after George decided he wanted to get his GED.

The two began dating in 1991 and were married in November 1992. They became a blended family, bringing together all eight of their children from their previous relationships.

“My kids just think he’s everything. They think the world of him,” Celia said.

DeMers didn’t think it was weird when his mom remarried, saying he was proud to have a new family.

“George’s character was just something that was pretty impressive,” he said. “They were friends for a long time before they got married and he was somebody that I knew, and I was proud to know him and be around him. He became the centerpiece to a life that my mom didn’t get before and deserved all of her life. It was pretty awesome.”

DeMers said he’ll remember George as a role model and someone he wants his own children to emulate.

“He’s the kind of person that you want your kids to grow up to be. If you look at all the things he did in his life, essentially all the careers he embarked on, he was never afraid. He was able to be successful and it was really impressive when you look at his life and talk to him. He brings out that determination that’s required to be successful in life,” DeMers said. “When you look at his resume, it looks like he lived seven different lives over the time that he was growing up. He knew how to do what had to be done, so it didn’t matter whether or not he was a police officer or he worked for (Fruit of the Loom) or just starting out as a gas station attendant and earning his way to be able to operate a Greyhound station.

“That takes character and it takes courage, and that takes a significant amount of fortitude, things that we see in abundance today. He didn’t accept ‘no.’ He just kept doing, kept marching forward. He was there and he was a man of honor and a man of courage.”

As the family greeted friends and others who knew George during his visitation Tuesday, one thing stood out: George lived a great life.

“He just did it one at a time and he would win people over with his personality,” Celia said. “He had the biggest grin and he was a guy that liked to stir up things. He giggled, and I mean giggled. In the 30 years I knew him, he never raised his hand to anybody. He never raised his voice. He was gentle.

“He loved living and he loved life and he loved people. He was a people person, and people loved him back.”