SAN ANTONIO – If you spend any time with Charles E. Williams, you are bound to walk away with a history lesson or two, specifically about life for African-Americans in San Antonio.
He lived through some of the roughest years in recent times.
“We didn’t have apartments available for black folks to rent,” he said, referring to the time more than half a century ago when he first set foot in the city.
Williams grew up on a farm in Granger, Texas and moved to San Antonio for opportunity and to help his aunt, who was raising children on her own.
“I was impressed by her,” he said. “She'd tell me, 'If you don't work, you'll steal. If you don't work, you can't eat.' And that resonated with me.”
Heeding her advice, Williams struck out on his own.
Trained as a barber, he rented a chair in someone else’s shop.
Years later, he established a place of his own, Williams Barber College on the city’s East Side.
“I was the first African-American to build a commercial building on WW White Road,” Williams said. “People thought I was losing my mind. 'Well, you may as well move to Seguin, you know? That's too far out.’”
At that time, the area was not as populous as it is today.
The business, still standing at the corner of WW White Road and Charles Williams Place, now has plenty of company.
The barber college still bears his name although it is under different ownership now.
Williams, however, own most of the other buildings on the block, including the home where he lives.
Being a barber and business owner are just part of his story, though.
Throughout the years, he also cooked and catered, renovated a historic home on Montana Street which became a site for business, and took part in the fight for civil rights.
Williams participated in several peaceful protests during that era, including those against segregation at the Joske’s lunch counter.
“Some people, I have to correct them. They say, 'Man, wow! You're a jack of all trades.' And I say, 'No, I'm not a jack. I’ve perfected it,’” he said. “I always wanted to make things better, not just for myself but for my community.”
At 81-years-old, Williams finally is spending more of his time on something that makes him feel better --his artwork.
He mainly paints and does woodworking.
Currently, he is taking on his most ambitious project yet -- converting a classic car into a functional desk.
He said his goal for the near future is to be able to display all of his artwork, as well as the works and contributions of other local African Americans, in a museum.
Williams said he is in negotiations now concerning two different sites for it.