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Leslie Williams.

Leslie Williams is serving her third term as president of the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society: Michigan's oldest such society dedicated to the preservation of African-American history. She can trace her own lineage back five generations in this state to William Webb, a famous Detroit abolitionist and contemporary of Frederick Douglass.


In addition to her work with FHWGS, Williams has recently taken a seat on the Historical Society of Michigan board of directors. Michigan History's Patricia Majher caught up with her in August, during the genealogical society's summer hiatus.

MH: Could you give our readers some background about the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society?

LW: Fred Hart Williams is our namesake. He was a descendant of a family who came to Detroit via the Underground Railroad. Born in 1882, he was a tax clerk by profession, but also a patron of the arts and a journalist for three African-American newspapers. He focused his efforts on documenting the history of our community. He then donated all of his historical materials to the Detroit Public Library. He was one of the first African Americans in Detroit to make such a donation and to take steps to make sure the materials were shared with others.

The person who founded our organization was Margaret McCall Thomas Ward, a librarian and archivist at the Detroit Public Library with the Burton Historical Collection. She was a visionary, recognizing the importance of preserving African-American family histories for future generations. She and an organizing committee established the society in 1979. It was one of those committee members--Dr. Norman McRae--who suggested the group be named after Williams, who was such a pioneer in collecting and interpreting our history.

MH: When and how did you come to be associated with the society?

LW: One of the society's members, Rosemary Clemmons, is a friend. She knew of my family history and thought I might be interested in the organization. She invited me to a meeting and I was really taken in by it. I became a member that afternoon.

A year later, I joined the FHWGS board. The first proposal I brought to them was an idea to develop an exhibit for Detroit's tercentennial celebration. Based on a book our society had published, called "Our Untold Stories," the exhibit would focus on the histories of Fred Hart Williams, William Webb, James Cole, and the Tyson-Robbins family--the latter of which was also connected to African-Canadian history. Over 10 panels, we told their stories and others, bringing the book to life with lots of personal photographs. To look at it was like walking into a family photo album. After the celebration, we displayed the exhibit at the Detroit Public Library as well as at Marygrove College, the Detroit Children's Museum, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

MH: What sorts of projects have you instituted since you became president in 2006?

LW: Twice a year, we do something called "Breakthroughs and Discoveries." At the beginning of a meeting, we provide an opportunity for our members to share any new discoveries they've made in their research. Many members take research trips during our July-August hiatus, so this is a chance for them to tell us what they've learned. It's kind of a grown-up version of "Show and Tell."

We also take trips together every June. Sometimes it's an all-day trip to a research facility like the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne [Indiana]. This past summer, we went to Ann Arbor where we took a walking tour of an early African-American neighborhood and talked to a gentleman who had lived there for 70 years about the changes he'd seen. On another trip, we joined with the Lansing Area African-American Genealogical Society to tour the African-American cemeteries and Underground Railroad sites in Cass County.


MH: Does FHWGS do anything that appeals directly to children?

LW: Yes. We've instituted a junior genealogist program led by Rochelle Danquah, the former education director at the Wright Museum. Rochelle is a den mother for her son's Boy Scout troop, and she taught them how to engage in research to earn their Genealogy badges. They worked with group sheets and photographs, and conducted oral history interviews. After they were done, they created lapbooks documenting their work.

We plan to expand this program with Girl Scouts and other organizations to reach younger people in our community and to groom a new generation of genealogists.

MH: Let's talk about the unique challenges of genealogical research for African-American families. What obstacles must be overcome?

LW: To begin with, it's very difficult to find documents with our ancestors' names on them prior to the 1870 census. And what there is--wills, property records--may only list a first name, or just a word like "boy" or "girl."

We are very dependent for our information on oral histories, and we painstakingly work to find documents that can help fill in the gaps. It's like trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. I happen to be a descendant of two enslaved brothers with the last name of Warr; one was resold and took the surname--Craft--of his second owner. After Emancipation, the brothers found each other but Craft kept his name. So we have two distinct branches in the family, which doubles the challenge.

MH: I understand you are also related to a famous figure in Detroit history.

LW: My great-great-great grandfather William Webb lived in a house on Congress Street where the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building stands today. On March 12, 1859, he invited Frederick Douglass--in town to speak about abolition--to his home for a secret meeting with John Brown, who was trying to gather support for the slave insurrection he was planning. Douglass and the others present listened to Brown's arguments, but Brown left without their approval. (He was executed nine months later, after an unsuccessful attempt to seize and hold the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.)

But William Webb's story was bigger than the meeting at his house. He was born a free man in Petersburg, Virginia, then lived for a time in Carlisle, Pennsylvania--a center of antislavery activity--before settling with his family in Detroit. He was a grocer there, and had a delivery wagon with a false bottom in which he hid enslaved people trying to get to Canada. Webb's fair complexion gained him easy access into taverns where he could overhear slave catchers' conversations. He would then take this information back to the network of "conductors," and collectively they would change the escape routes of the runaways. I like to think of him as courageous and feisty--traits that are still in our family today.
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Title Annotation:CONVERSATIONS; Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society
Author:Majher, Patricia
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Next Article:The spruce shooters.

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