Robert Bradford Williams : An Oral History
The African-American Mayor of the Wellington Borough of Onslow
Robert Bradford Williams was an American-born immigrant who first arrived in Wellington in the late 1880s. He became a notable lawyer, music director and the longest serving Mayor of the Wellington Borough of Onslow. His journey from a childhood of near-poverty in the United States to becoming a prominent Wellington citizen was unusual, but what makes his story even more remarkable is that Robert Bradford Williams was black.
The oral history linked above was recorded in 2010 with Jane Paul, Robert Bradford Williams' granddaughter, in Titahi Bay. Wellington City Libraries wishes to acknowledge and give special thanks to Jane Paul, without whom this webpage would not be possible.
Early life & The Fisk Jubilee Singers
He was born in 1860 in the County of Appling in south-east Georgia shortly before the start of the American Civil War. It is uncertain whether he was born into slavery or "born free", but it is likely that either his parents or grandparents had been slaves. He began his education at the Williston Academy, a private boarding school sprawling over 125 acres in western Massachusetts to which he had won a scholarship. At Williston he showed remarkable ability in academic, sporting and musical fields and went on to gain admittance to Yale University. At Yale he excelled in singing, public speaking, athletics and boxing. His prowess in the ring was to be confirmed in tragic circumstances when an opponent he "K.O'ed" died four days later having never regained consciousness. Graduating in 1885, he briefly worked as a teacher and gave lectures supporting the tightening of liquor laws in the Southern States. His prohibitionist stance was occasionally met with violence and with racial tension on the rise, Williams followed up an earlier invitation to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. (See Image 1).
Fisk University was founded in Nashville in 1866 to provide tertiary education to freed slaves and other young African-Americans after the Civil War. Its choir was formed five years later as a fund-raising venture when the university fell into financial difficulties. Their tours across the United States and beyond were an enormous success and enough money was soon raised to build the university's first permanent buildings. The Fisk Jubilee Singers quickly developed an international reputation and were responsible for first introducing the Negro Spiritual musical tradition to many audiences outside of the Southern States and even performed for Queen Victoria at a private function at Buckingham Palace. Though not a graduate of Fisk University, Robert Bradford Williams accepted the invitation to join the singers and embarked on a world tour in 1886 which eventually took them to Australia and New Zealand. (See Image 2).
Life in Australia & New Zealand
Enamored with New Zealand, he considered the possibility of settling here but first returned to Australia where he married Katherine Josephine Burke, a white Irish-Catholic whom he had met when the Jubilee Singers were in Tasmania. Leaving the choir permanently, Kate and Robert lived in Melbourne briefly where their son was born before migrating to New Zealand in January 1890 and settling in Wellington. Twin daughters were born (sadly one did not survive) followed by another daughter.
Looking for a new career, Williams decided to become a lawyer and on completing his studies began practising with the firm of Brown, Skerrett and Dean before establishing his own practice from an office he rented in the Supreme Court building. Later he formed a partnership with Vincent Meredith who went on to become a Crown prosecutor in Auckland and founded the law firm Meredith Connell which survives to this day. (See Image 3).
Much patience and push has been necessary to get a footing here in my chosen profession; but compensations there have been for all temporary irritations; dear children have come to be a comfort to me, and an increasingly wide circle of good friends to render practical aid and give encouragement
Music continued to play an important part in Robert's life. His fine tenor voice was in constant demand with various operatic societies and he was for many years the choir master at the Methodist Church in Taranaki Street. He also sat on the board of Wellington Hospital and was active as a Freemason.
Notwithstanding, I have, if not found time, TAKEN it for music. I shall remember with more genuine pleasure, my association with this divinest art than with any other occupation of my life
Local Body Politics & Onslow Borough Council
With such a background it was not entirely surprising that Williams decided to enter local body politics. What seems unusual for what might be regarded as a less enlightened era than today, is that the colour of his skin appears to have been an irrelevant issue for voters. He successfully stood for Mayor of the Onslow Borough Council in 1902 and held the position for five years for which he was paid a modest honorarium of £30 per annum (the equivalent of approximately $5000 today). (See Image 5).
With the growing demands of my business, I have not done so much music lately. A great deal of time however, formerly given to that, has been transferred to local politics, which after all is closely allied to the life of a lawyer. In that, I have been engaged for now nearly five years, and my friends (perhaps too willing to praise and not to blame) declare that I have done good work
For much of his term, the Council dedicated itself to general borough administration at a time when there was little in the coffers to fund the type of community facilities or services associated with local councils today (though funds were allocated to hold a party to celebrate the Coronation of Edward VII). A building inspector was appointed to control the quality and standard of construction while an Inspector of Nuisances kept an eye on the illegal dumping of Night Soil (household fecal waste), stray dogs and wandering cattle. Improvements in street-lighting (both gas and electric) and roads were enthusiastically received by residents. There was however some major capital expenditure under Robert Bradford Williams' chairmanship. Firstly the Council oversaw the construction of new roads which allowed the Highland Park (Wadestown) and Wilton housing estates to be created and subdivided. Secondly a major loan of over £20,000 was raised to allow for the extension of the electrified tramway network to Wadestown in partnership with the Wellington City Council. This was a major undertaking which involved creating a new route to the suburb with a gentle enough gradient to enable a tram to ascend the hill without its wheels slipping. It remains as the main vehicular route to the upper section of the suburb via Barnard Street and Lennel Road. Though Wadestown was to leave the Borough and join Wellington City before the tram route opened, the decision of Williams' Council to proceed with the extension was instrumental in instigating this important piece of transport infrastructure.
The four years past, I have been returned to office without opposition. Tramways, drainage, workers' homes, and kindred matters for the health and convenience of my constituents have occupied me chiefly. The general politics of the country have never yet taken hold of me to sufficiently to seek parliamentary honors, although, I have been asked to stand at the forthcoming elections
He decided not to contest the Mayoralty in 1907 but went on to stand for Parliament in the 1908 General Election. However, he was unsuccessful when his absence during part of the election period (when he had to return to the United States) reduced his public profile. He stood again in the 1914 election for the Wellington South seat but was again unsuccessful.
Towards the end of his life Robert Bradford Williams gradually began to lose his sight and eventually became blind. This coupled with the loss of property during the Great Depression and the death of his wife in 1919 led to the onset of depression. He continued to live at his house in Goring Street (Thorndon) under the care of his daughter Vera Jane until his health declined and he moved into full-time care in Wellington Hospital. He was transferred along with many other patients to a sanatorium in Otaki following a swarm of earthquakes in Wellington in early 1942. There he fretted for his home back in the capital so much that his daughters decided to bring him back to the city. Sadly before this could happen, Robert Bradford Williams died on the 21 May 1942 at the age of 79. He was buried with his wife in Karori Cemetery.
The relation of my race and people to the new order of things is, of course, forced upon me in my study of that great and rapidly increasing nation [The United States]. Is the [racism] problem... showing any signs of being happily and lastingly solved? When perplexed and not quite sure that all will be well after all, I find comfort in the belief that if we all do our duty, we may safely leave God to do the rest
This page was written and researched by Gábor Tóth, Local & NZ History Specialist for Wellington City Libraries.
- 'Robert Bradford William: The African-American Yale Graduate who became Mayor of Onslow' by Jane Paul. Published in The Onslow Historian by the Onslow Historical Society, Volume 37, No. 1, 2008.
- Onslow Borough Council Minute Books, Volumes 3 & 4. Source : Wellington City Archives, 110:0:3 & 110:0:4
- New York Times, 11-16 March 1884.
- J.B.T Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers with their Songs, by Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1886.
- The diary of Robert Bradford Williams (original holograph manuscript). From the collection of Jane Paul
- Quotes by Robert Bradford Williams extracted from the Vicennial Record of the Class of 1885, Yale University, 1907.