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Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.
The richness of Monmouth’s
African American heritage has not been adequately addressed in this column. As
we observe Black History Month this February, the story of one remarkable black
figure from our past is particularly worth celebrating.
Mayo Williams was a
trailblazer in athletics, higher education and the music industry. Although
much of his adult life was based in Chicago, his formative years from early
childhood through high school were spent in the Maple City.
Growing up in a poor,
single-parent household on the south side of Monmouth, all of the odds seemed
stacked against Williams one day graduating from an Ivy League University,
playing in the National Football League and becoming a successful record
producer. But Mayo, better known by the nickname “Ink,” made the most of his
athletic, academic and entrepreneurial talents.
Born the son of a sawmill
worker in Pine Bluff, Ark., tragic circumstances would cause Williams to
relocate to Monmouth at the age of 4. His grandmother, a former slave named
Missouri McFall, had originally settled in Monmouth with her daughter Millie
about 1885, after leaving their native Tennessee. Working as a washerwoman,
Missouri was left to live on her own two years later, when 23-year-old Millie
married Daniel Williams, also a native Tennessean.
In 1887, Millie gave birth to
a son, Luther, before the couple left Monmouth for Arkansas. There, the couple
had four more children, including Mayo, born in 1894.
On Nov. 16, 1901, Mayo’s
father was shot to death over a domestic dispute with a co-worker named Fred
Hillard. After having his life threatened by Williams, Hillard left work and
retreated to his residence. Williams appeared outside Hillard’s home that
night, cursing and brandishing a large pistol. When Hillard and his wife
demanded that he leave, Williams refused, and Hillard in self-defense shot him
Millie and her young family
soon returned to Monmouth, where they lived with the William Penny family at
807 East Fifth Ave. and Millie did laundry. In 1905, she married William Miles
McGruder, a pottery worker from Macomb, whom she would later divorce. The
McGruders and Millie’s children moved into a house at 417 South Fifth St.
Meanwhile, young Mayo excelled in the public schools,
entering Monmouth High School in 1908, where he also proved himself a gifted
athlete. In 1910, as halfback for the Monmouth Maroons, he helped propel the
team to the state championship game against Rockford for state championship.
“All, who have seen Williams play,” wrote his coach,
“have simply gasped in astonishment and are still wondering how he does it. His
equal in dodging, speed, straight-arming, goal-kicking, tackling and grabbing
forward passes cannot be found in the central states.”
As a sophomore, Williams had appeared in a wrestling
match at Monmouth’s Pattee Opera House as part of a warmup to a professional
match. In 1912, he represented MHS at the state track and field championship in
Champaign, where he won two medals, bringing his total medal count to 23.
Williams got a taste of the wider world that spring,
when he went to Chicago for a time to stay with his brother, a railroad porter;
then headed to Manitou, Colo., working for Mrs. H.R. Moffet, wife of the
Monmouth newspaper publisher, who ran a summer resort there called the
Sunnyside Inn, which catered to Monmouth residents.
It is uncertain when or if Williams earned his high
school diploma, but in 1916 he enrolled at Ivy League Brown University on an
athletic scholarship. He had been recommended for admission by Fritz Pollard, a
football star for Brown, who was the first African American to play in the Rose
Bowl and the first elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame.
Pollard, who grew up in Rogers Park, Ill., had originally met Williams at a
track meet in 1912. They became roommates at Brown and partners in a
suit-pressing business operated out of their dorm room.
Over his four seasons at Brown, Williams helped lead
the football squad to a 27-10-1 record and he also won the New England
championship in the 40-yard dash. Williams’ college career was interrupted in
1918, when he enlisted as a private in the Army.
Williams was a charter member of Brown’s chapter of
Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the nation’s first intercollegiate African American
fraternity. He graduated in 1921 with a degree in philosophy and as a member of
Phi Beta Kappa.
While hoping to follow his college roommate Pollard in
a banking career, Williams received an opportunity to try out for professional
football, and was signed by the Hammond Indiana Pros, for which he played until
1926. He also played one game each for the Ohio-based Canton Bulldogs,
Cleveland Bulldogs and Dayton Triangles. At the beginning of his pro career, he
was one of only three black players in what would become the National Football
League in 1922.
Because the football season spanned only three months
and the average player salary was only $150 per game, Williams had to look
elsewhere for income. Living with his mother in Chicago, he sold bathtub gin to
a Chicago jazz club and in 1922 began writing a sports column for The Chicago
Whip, a racially militant paper edited by a fellow Alpha Phi Alpha brother,
Bibbs would facilitate Williams’ entry into the music
industry. The brother-in-law of the owner of Black Swan records—a Harlem-based
jazz and blues recording company—Bibbs became the Chicago distributor for Black
Swan and appointed Williams to become his collection agent. Although he knew
nothing about music, Williams eagerly accepted the opportunity, recalling
later, “I wanted to go into something where I could be the organizer; show how
to do it.”
When Black Swan failed, its master recordings were
purchased by Paramount, and Williams visited Paramount’s executives to petition
for a job. “Race” records were new to the industry and the executives had
little understanding of how they should be marketed. Williams was named manager
of Chicago Music, a new music publishing company that had rights to Paramount
properties. Although he was given no salary, he received a portion of sales
royalty from artists whose sessions he produced.
Williams went against the grain among fellow educated
African Americans of the time, who considered blues music to be unsophisticated
and potentially damaging to upward mobility for blacks. While growing up in
Monmouth, he had developed an appreciation for the genre from his mother and
believed the blues to be a proud part of his racial heritage. When the blues
singers he signed caused some in the industry to label him “Mayo Williams and
his dogs,” he replied, “My dogs are thoroughbreds.”
His prize discovery at Paramount was Gertrude
“Ma” Rainey, who had come north after a career with traveling tent
shows across the south. In 1924, Williams produced her jazz standard “See See
Rider,” which featured on trumpet the young Louis Armstrong, who had just
arrived in Chicago. The same year, Williams married Aleta Stokes, a
schoolteacher, whose name would also appear in the credits for some of his
In 1927, after being edged out of his
Paramount position by a white salesman, Williams started The Chicago Record
Company, marketing jazz, blues and gospel records under the Black Patti label,
which produced the first recorded version of the song later known as
“Stagger Lee.” After that label failed, he moved on to a position with
When the stock market crash caused record
sales to plummet, Williams took a football coaching position with Morehouse
University from 1931-1933. The following year, he was hired to head the “race
records” department of Decca, where he recorded musicians such as Alberta
Hunter, Blind Boy Fuller, and Mahalia Jackson. In 1946, Williams founded Ebony Records in Chicago, where he
recorded a young Muddy Waters. From 1945-1949 he also ran the Harlem label,
based in New York City.
After Williams’ wife, Aleta, died
in 1968, he continued to operate Ebony Records for a time, turning out his last
single in 1972. That year, he was interviewed by jazz historian George Paulus,
an aficionado of the Delta blues.
Williams expressed to Paulus his
disdain for early blues artists, saying he preferred the “Ma Rainey” style of
the blues, performed with good diction and full orchestra. “Those low-down country guys,” he said, “could play a
few numbers and then they weren’t good for nothing. Blind Lemon froze to death
in a hallway. They were just drunken, low-down guys. They weren’t people I
wanted to hang around with for more than it took to do my business. I’m not a
country blues fan.”
Although many histories assert that Williams’ nickname
“Ink” was derived from his ability to ink contracts with star performers,
Paulus recalled following the interview that “he mentioned a bit about himself
as an avid football player in college and his nickname ‘Ink’ because of his
With his record producing career
essentially over and a large stock of records on hand, Williams placed an ad in
a 1973 issue of the Chicago Defender, offering record dealers 50 free jazz and
blues records if they purchased 50 records at 10 cents apiece.
Williams died at a Chicago nursing
home on Jan. 2, 1980, and was buried with his wife in Burr Oak Cemetery, the
historic African American burial grounds in Alsip, Ill., that would become the
focus of a 2009 grave-reselling scandal. (Their graves were not disturbed.)
Williams was posthumously inducted
into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2004.
For Maple City Memories, I’m