This post is about the grandfather I never got a chance to meet because he died when I was two years old.
William (or Bill as he was called) was born on October 6, 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida. He was born into a working class family and lived in a poor neighborhood on the eastside of Jacksonville. He attended the public schools of the city, and in the picture below, he is shown as a young boy at the Midway school.
His father, John, had migrated from Georgia at some point in the early 1900s and secured what would have been a good job at the Mason Lumber Company as a fireman. The company even sold him his house. Bill’s mother, Georgia Harris, died of pneumonia when he was a 23-year old man.
Bill seems to have always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and at the age of 9, he started running errands for a local pharmacy. He later worked at another pharmacy owned by a Jewish man, called Bernie’s Pharmacy, and the two would share a lifelong friendship. Bill eventually worked himself up to where he could manage and run the entire pharmacy. This must have been exciting for him, to make a little money. In this picture on the right, he is a young man and posing in front of a car he had purchased.
Bill met my grandmother, Pauline Waters, while she was a first year teacher at the Methodist run Boylan School, a private school in Jacksonville for negro girls. She was one of three new black teachers at the school, and they were allowed to invite a local social group in for group discussions. The group was called “The Revellers”, and it just so happened that Bill was President of that group.
Pauline was a staunch Christian, a minister’s daughter, and did not suffer fools. She had a very regal air about her, which comes through in this comment about Bill in her autobiography:
“I don’t know why Bill was so gone on me except by God’s leading because I was not the most attractive of the group. Let me say, however, that in all of my life I was never without at least one admirer and I never had to go get any one of them. I only made an effort to be charming, intelligent and sweet at all times…I had self-esteem all right and not more than I should have…Bill courted me three years and married me in the summer of 1938 on the lawn of my father’s Methodist Parsonage.”
Bill was clearly gone on Pauline. My grandmother saved a cache of love letters written between them in the years before and right after marriage. Bill says:
“Dearest Sugar Pie, I’m proud of the fact that such a darling girl as you is going to be my wife. Gosh, I feel silly looking forward to an event of this nature…”
“Pauline, I think about you every 1/1000th of a second…”
“Honey my love for you is again and again…”
Bill promised to work hard and make a good life for them and he fulfilled that promise. By the late-1940s, Bill had two pharmacies of his own, affectionately known around town as the Willie Smith stores. My father grew up working in those stores. Bill became a popular fixture in black Jacksonville of that era, known as being a hard-working (7 days a week) and generous man, and was often mentioned in the local newspaper. He was a trustee at Ebenezer Methodist Church, a member of Omega Phi Psi, on the board of directors for the Urban League, a president of the Jacksonville Negro Business League, and one of the founders of the colored YMCA.
He did so well for the family, that they were able to afford a beach house at American Beach, which was the colored beach in Jacksonville. He was known for being extremely charitable, and would give money and time to those in need. He was a close friend of Eartha MM White, a woman who, along with her daughter Clara, reached national fame for her accomplishments. To say that Bill Smith was utterly beloved by the community would not be an overstatement.
My father and uncle remember their father Bill as a man who worked all the time, and provided well for his family. Consequently, they don’t recall having too many conversations with him, which is why my father has always believed in having lots and lots of talks with me and my siblings. By the late 1960s, the heyday of the stores had passed and a depressed economy led to their closure. Undaunted, my grandfather began a second, though brief, career as a minister. That’s his wife Pauline’s work, I guarantee you.
I grew up knowing 3 of my grandparents, so this 4th one has always been a larger than life figure to me. I am fortunate to have not only a short biography he wrote about himself, but also his wife’s autobiography, and my dad, uncle and mother’s first-hand recollections. How I would have loved to know him.
I’ll close with a scene whose memory still moves my father to tears. Bill’s funeral, of course drew most of black Jacksonville out to say their final goodbyes. During the wake, after it had cleared out, an unknown woman appeared and walked up to the casket. She looked down at Bill, closed her eyes and sighed. My dad had no idea who this woman was, and when he walked up to her, she simply said.
“Your daddy was such a good man.”
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
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Nice write up on your grandfather. I’m another who only knew 3 of my 4 grandparents.
This was really nice, like you I only knew three of my four grandparents.
There was so much to admire about your grandfather, but what moved me the most were those wonderful love letters! What a treasure to have so much personal detail about your grandfather even though I know it can never make up for you not getting to spend time with him.
Thanks for sharing this, Dionne
This was a wonderful tribute to your grandfather. I know he would be very proud of you.