A. N. C. Williams, prominent African American merchant and community leader in Williamson County, was born into slavery in Spring Hill, Tennessee, in 1844. At age six, he was sold to D. R. Crutcher and moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where he lived the remainder of his life. Williams’s life, spanning decades that saw profound changes for African Americans in civil rights, racial attitudes, and opportunities, illustrates the challenges and achievements of a successful African American entrepreneur in a small southern town during and after Reconstruction.
Prior to gaining his freedom, Williams initially taught himself to read and write by tracing scraps of paper but stopped because it was considered dangerous for a slave to know how to write. His last owner, a captain in the Confederate Army named Andrew Jackson Williams, later taught him to read and write formally. Williams became a devout student of the Bible and briefly taught school in the 1870s.
During the Civil War, the youthful Williams had already built a prominent reputation as a trustworthy and respected citizen within Franklin’s black and white communities. As a result, Union troops occupying Franklin during the Civil War, believing Williams to be a Southern collaborator, once detained him for questioning as a potential sniper suspect. Finding no evidence to support these claims, Williams was soon released.
Upon emancipation in 1863, Williams opened the first African American business in downtown Franklin, operating a shoe repair business on the square with African American preacher William Perkins. This first site was destroyed during the Battle of Franklin in 1864. Undaunted, Williams leased a site on Main Street and continued his shoe building and repair operation.
After the Civil War, Williams joined Franklin’s Colored League. On July 6, 1867, the evening of the infamous Franklin Riot, the league marched through Franklin’s square to protest speeches by two congressional candidates. Williams attempted to quell violence by communicating to white Conservatives the league’s desire to march peaceably. Although events unfortunately escalated and shots were fired on both sides, Williams proved instrumental in calming tensions between blacks and whites and working for a peaceable solution to the conflict.
After the riot, Williams purchased prime real estate directly on Main Street in 1875 and again in 1877 after gaining the trust and respect of one of Harpeth Bank’s white officers and securing a loan. After purchasing sites near the present-day Fourth Avenue, he constructed a building and opened a general merchandise store. Williams operated his store for sixty-four years, openly catering to both black and white patrons despite Jim Crow laws and rampant segregation. Due to failing health, he retired in 1928 as the oldest continually operating merchant on Main Street, having owned and managed his successful, thriving store for over sixty years.
In addition to Williams’s downtown business ventures, he purchased and sold property throughout Franklin, providing a means for fellow African Americans to acquire property in both elite and working-class African American neighborhoods. In 1867, Williams purchased a half corner lot on what is now Second and Church Streets, a cornerstone for one of Franklin’s working-class African American neighborhoods during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1867, Williams divided the lot, selling the corner portion to African American piano teacher Mary Hilbreth and the remaining portion for the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This corner is still occupied by the Williams-Hilbreth-House dwelling while the church building now houses a community theater.
Williams also contributed to the settlement and development of Franklin’s most prominent African American community, known as the Natchez Street neighborhood, or “Baptist Neck” to local residents. He and his family, including wife Malissa and eleven children, lived in a large home in the neighborhood, which formed one of the neighborhood’s borders. A majority of Franklin’s wealthier black families lived on Columbia Avenue, Natchez, and surrounding streets, and this area evolved into the city’s economic, cultural, and social nucleus for African Americans. Williams purchased and sold several lots in this vicinity and was involved in securing the land used for the creation of a school for Franklin’s African American children, which served the neighborhood for nearly a century. Williams’s family home, built in 1881 and now owned and occupied by his grandson, still stands as a prominent neighborhood anchor. This historic African American neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Although best remembered for his successful Main Street business ventures, Williams’s impact in Franklin went far deeper than his contribution to the town’s economic development. A deeply spiritual man, he served as founding member and pastor for the Cummins Street Christian Church, an African American congregation in the Natchez Street neighborhood that still maintains a thriving membership today. This church, now called the Cummins Street Church of Christ, still stands on the lot Williams purchased and donated for the organization of this congregation.
Upon Williams’s death in 1930, the town of Franklin mourned the passing of a beloved, influential, and respected leader within the community. In an uncommon tribute in the segregated Depression-era South, Williams’s obituary was printed on the Franklin Review-Appeal’s front page, reflecting his respected reputation within the town. His funeral was held in the predominantly white Fourth Avenue Church because attendance was too high to be accommodated in the Cummins Street Christian Church. Mourners from black and white communities turned out in great numbers to pay their respects. A.N.C. Williams is listed as one of the Pioneer Families of Tennessee and is buried in Franklin’s National Register-listed Toussaint L’Overture Cemetery.
James A. Crutchfield and Robert Holladay, Franklin: Tennessee&amp;amp;#8217;s Handsomest Town (1999);
Rick Warwick, Williamson County in Black and White (2000)