Florist has deep roots in SelmaPublished 11:17pm Saturday, January 22, 2011
Fred Douglas Williams III was born in Selma on Sept. 28, 1936. The son of Fred and Mary Ellen Williams he was a member of one of Selma’s oldest and most respected families whose history may be recognized through memorabilia on display in Old Depot Museum. Fred Williams’ mother was the daughter of Emma and Tom Richardson of Sumter County where Richardson was the postmaster of Hamner.
In the Fire Fighters Museum a glass-covered display case contains a silver fire trumpet owned and used by his great-grandfather John Henry Williams who was a Selma fire chief. Also on display are official, hand-written documents of historic verification of John Henry Williams’ role in the community where he also assisted in the founding of Brown Chapel AME Church in 1866.
Chief Williams had a hack service, married and had 13 children. Each time he had a child he brought a new hack. Then in 1905 he went into the mortuary business and the business and the family flourished. (In still another distinction, Fred Williams comments, “Members of the family have always voted, they still do.”)
Fred attended public schools in Selma, admitting that “I was a spoiled child. I knew I lived in a wealthy family, I had everything; lived with a silver spoon.”
Due to reading difficulties he was sent to Maggie Walker Prep School in Richmond, Va., where he did well. After graduation he entered Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. “I majored in college and a good time,” he confesses, laughing.
Fred admits to being always protected. “I hung around with my grandparents and my aunts. They protected me from the bad world, the hate stares. There was never any question about me drinking out of the water fountains in Kress. I was simply told you don’t drink out of public fountains and you don’t go to public restrooms.”
In the summer, he says, he and his brother were shipped off to a grandmother in Baltimore and later to Cape May where his family bought a home on the coast, coming back to Selma just in time for school.
“The family was keeping us from the bad things in Selma. Segregation hardly touched me at all
After completing his education he returned to Selma in 1955 and opened a flower shop. Three years later he moved to California where he had a flower shop and did freelance design in Hollywood for nine years . “I have loved flowers all my life. As a child our neighbor was Mrs. Claiborne Blanton who had a flower shop on the corner of Dallas Avenue and Pettus Street. That was right across the street from us and the seeds of my interest in flowers flourished.”
In 1971 the Alabama State Florists Association had its annual convention in Montgomery. In Selma, Williams had just returned from California and decided to attend that convention even though there were no black members. However, he was well received, was joined by his family and nine years later he went in as president of the Alabama State Florists Association.
His interest and expertise extended to Auburn University where he taught a course in floral design for 15 years. “However, my aim was always to be a business man, not a black business man,” he says. “You come in my business because I make a pretty flower arrangement.”
In 1958 Fred and his childhood sweetheart, Martha Jean Lee, married. They had two daughters: Kaye Williams of Alexandria, Virginia, and Kim Dillon of Minnesota. The Williams have two granddaughters. Martha Williams died July 15, 2003.
Fred Williams has been a property owner and resident of Old Town Historic District for 20 years. The couple bought a house built by Jud Breslin, restored it and opened it for Pilgrimage several years later.
The first black home on Pilgrimage, the tour was chaired by Jean Martin and Kate Gamble with an “overflow” of volunteers. “We broke several precedents that year,” Williams recalls, smiling at the memory.
A community activist as well as a business bulwark, he is a member of the Selma-Dallas County History Society Board, a former trustee of Brown Chapel, a charter member of 12-High Club, the Chesterfield Club and the boards of both the Vaughan-Smitherman Museum and Sturdivant Hall.
He recently received the Lifetime Membership Award in the Alabama State Florists Association.
Of his home, Williams says “I vote every election and I am hoping for the best in Selma in my later years. I have a host of friends here, some beloved cousins and I have been adopted by many local families through friendships. I enjoy it all.”