'Let It Be Told!' celebrates the rich history at Williams
Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 5:09 p.m.
Willie McCray is more than just a member of the custodial staff at Joseph Williams Elementary School. The 73-year-old shares in the rich history of one of the oldest schools in Gainesville.
Williams Elementary School art teacher Jennifer Lindquist is working on a documentary to celebrate the school's 70th anniversary in 2008. The video project, called "Let it Be Heard," features interviews from those who attended or worked at the school before 1970.
McCray attended Williams Elementary in the early 1940s, but moved away from Gainesville before the beginning of his sixth-grade year.
"To me, it was just something to make me feel good, to say I went to Williams, and now I'm back working here," McCray said.
Art teacher Jennifer Lindquist said she saw more in the stories McCray was telling her students about his days at Williams. She saw an opportunity to preserve history.
"There is a lack of connection with heritage, especially with our neighborhood community at Williams," Lindquist said.
So she began collecting stories and history for "Let It Be Told!" — a compilation of video interviews with Gainesville community members who attended Williams before 1970.
Other notable alumni and teachers to be interviewed for the project include Capt. Tony Jones at the Gainesville Police Department, and Albert White, 64, a retired executive manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities. Former Williams Elementary teacher Alberta Rivers shared her story as well.
"A lot of these people are living right here in the community — my kids have known them their entire life — and they've kind of been taken a little bit for granted," Lindquist said.
The timing for her project couldn't be better. Williams Elementary, at 1245 SE 7th Ave., is approaching its 70th anniversary.
In 1938, a wood-frame school house was erected on property donated by Joseph A. Williams, a prominent black Gainesville resident, who saw the need for an elementary school for black students on the east side of town.
According to the history books at the Alachua County School District, that building burned down the same year it was built. The six-room stone building that replaced it a year later still stands today.
Some remember the school as being cold, with kerosene heaters that took a while to start working.
Others remember sweltering summer months in the non-air-conditioned building. "It wasn't air-conditioned, but it was livable and workable," said former teacher Alberta Rivers.
Those who attended Williams Elementary, before staff and students were displaced during integration in 1970, say the education they received there has carried them through life.
"It was a nurturing and caring environment," said Capt. Jones, who graduated from Williams in 1967. "From all of the staff ... you just had the feeling that they wanted you to excel at that school. They really tried to prepare you for the next phase of your education."
One thing Jones said he remembers distinctly was the city dump that was in the field outside Williams Elementary.
"Sometimes there was a foul odor," he recalled.
Corporal punishment and a longtime principal, Gaston Cook, were two other details embedded in the minds of former Williams students.
White attended Williams from 1950 to 1956 and now has a granddaughter attending the school.
"Mr. Cook struck the fear of God in all of us. You did not want to get on his bad side," White said. "It was the paddle if you were real bad, but oh, he never got me," White said.
McCray, however, was not as fortunate.
"Mr. Cook, his wife was a teacher and I was her little pet. She'd take me everywhere she went and I always followed her. Well, I had did something and got in trouble," McCray recalls.
"Mr. Cook put the strap to me and she stayed right in there, and after four to five licks, she said, 'That's enough, don't hit him no more.' "
The strictness of the school wasn't a negative in the eyes of these alums, however.
"Those teachers were seriously committed and serious about producing good citizens," White said. "They were very maternal and they treated you like you were their children. They constantly reminded you that you were going to do your work, that you were not going to disgrace, dishonor or embarrass your family - they were friends of your parents."
White cherishes those memories and said he attributes much of his success today to the early start he received the day he graduated from Williams. White said he still has the program from his graduation ceremony. "We were going to high school. Lincoln High School was grades 7-12, and that was everyone's dream back then," said White, who graduated with the last class to attend Lincoln before it was closed during desegregation.
Williams, meantime, stayed open during desegregation, but many of the teachers lost their positions or were moved to other schools.
Just down the street from Williams Elementary is an old building that at one time was known as the Cotton Club.
The history of the two buildings seems intertwined.
Jennifer Lindquist has uncovered during her Williams project stories from the club's zenith when great jazz musicians played at what was then one of Gainesville's only black entertainment clubs.
Willie McCray tells the story of sneaking into the club when he was underage to see B.B. King perform.
That story was uncovered when Lindquist assigned her students to create documentaries on the old Cotton Club.
"I think it's absolutely necessary," said Vivian Filer, who chairs the Cotton Club historical preservation effort. "This kind of preservation represents history as it occurred for African-Americans. Histories of Gainesville have been written and black folk just simply didn't exist."
Filer, 69, lived in the Williams neighborhood growing up, but attended another one of the city's black schools, Lincoln High School.
She was one of the first interviews Lindquist conducted for her project.
Filer said the construction of the Cotton Club historical office, located adjacent to the old club itself, is just beginning, and she expects construction on the building to begin soon.
"If we don't share it, the youth will never know," Filer said. "The history is really very rich."
The halls at Joseph Williams Elementary have changed significantly since McCray was a student.
Carpet, tile, air conditioning and even a cafeteria are luxuries McCray said he didn't have at Williams. "It just makes you feel good when you can share all of this stuff developing in your lifetime, and you can look back and remember where you came from," he said.
McCray returned to Gainesville in 1951, but soon enlisted in the Army and served two years in Germany.
"I came back in 1956 and you could see the changes. Gainesville was enlarging and growing, and just kept blossoming," he said. McCray has now been a janitor at Williams for 13 years and insists it's not yet time for him to retire.
"I don't want to. I've said every year, I'll take it a year at a time, and then the teachers plead, 'Come on, stay with us, we need you,' " McCray said. "People appreciate what you do and that's all that counts."
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