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Part One A Family Affair

Dorothy Williams was born in Nebraska on October 26, 1902 to the Reverend John Albert Williams and his wife, Lucinda Gamble. She was the eldest of three children, with a younger sister, Catherine, and brother, Worthington. Both of her parents were notable in their own rights, and it is easy to see where Dorothy came by her determination. Dorothy’s mother, Lucinda (usually called Lucy), was an impressive woman.

Lucy’s father, William Gamble, moved from Alabama to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1870, marrying Lucy’s mother in 1873. William started a barbershop in Omaha, which catered to white trade only. This selectivity allowed Mr. Gamble to earn enough money to allow Lucy not only to graduate from Omaha High School in 1893 but also to attend the Normal Training school run by the Board of Education to obtain teacher training (Dixon).

Although many African Americans had qualified as teachers, and some even as college professors, black teachers still had to leave Nebraska to find work at the time. In fact, Lucy’s teacher at the Normal school tried very hard to discourage her from attending classes there. She insisted that the Omaha school system would never employ a black teacher, making the education pointless. Lucy persisted, and within three months of her 1895 graduation, had found employment as the first of only two African American schoolteachers hired by Omaha Public Schools prior to 1939 (Nebraska Writers’ Project). Lucy continued to teach until, as was customary, she resigned in 1901 upon her marriage to Reverend Williams. Lucy’s achievement is all the more remarkable because though schools in much of the country were segregated at the time, the Omaha Public School system never was. Therefore, Lucy Gamble was teaching not only African American children, but white children as well.

Dorothy’s father, Reverend John Albert Williams, was also a prominent figure in Omaha’s African American community. He was an Ontario-born Canadian immigrant who moved to Detroit with his family in 1878. After attending Detroit High School and the Detroit Church Academy, he graduated from the Seabury Divinity School on June 11, 1891. He eventually became the second rector of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church (Dixon).

Being the rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Philip, the Deacon undoubtedly put John Albert Williams in an important position in the African American community, but starting in 1915, he also became important by virtue of being the editor of The Monitor, a weekly African American newspaper. Preserved records of The Monitor offer a unique glimpse into African American life in Omaha at the time and can help place Dorothy Williams’s Omaha experience into context. The front page of its first issue from July 1915 advertised it as “A Weekly Newspaper Devoted to the Interests of the Eight Thousand Colored People in Omaha and Vicinity, and to the Good of the Community,” and its first editorial stated that The Monitor’s purpose was to cover the activities of African Americans in Omaha and “to discuss matters of peculiar importance to them as touching their civic and economic rights, duties, opportunities and privileges.”

The Monitor editorials penned by Reverend Williams frequently made fearless statements opposing such things as the infamous “grandfather clauses.” It also, however, contained much praise for the achievements of African Americans in Omaha and elsewhere. An August 1915 article in The Monitor boasted that “[t]he colored people of Omaha partake of the general characteristics of the citizenry of this progressive city. They are animated by the spirit of the place and are contributing their share to the upbuilding of the community” (“Something About Our Race In Omaha”). It claimed that many of the African Americans in Omaha were doing well in terms of housing and employment. Nonetheless, the paper indicated that most of the black population had to find employment in Omaha working in railroads, hotels, restaurants, and packing houses, or as construction workers, porters, janitors, maids, and waitresses. The author of the article added proudly that a few young women had been employed as stenographers by business firms and were doing well in this capacity (12-13).

 

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Part Two Women & Work

The era in which Dorothy Williams grew up in Omaha was one in which women, black and white, were limited in their choices of careers.  For Dorothy to grow up with parents who advocated progressive views regarding women was significant. Although The Monitor did not address the issue of women’s careers in particular, it did express sentiments in support of women participating in society. Reverend Williams included items such as an article by Francis J. Grimke on the front page that stated, “The average man is in no sense superior to the average woman, either in point of intelligence, or of character” (“The Logic of Woman Suffrage”). He also included brief dispatches by Lucille Skaggs about young women across the country excelling academically at their respective colleges and universities, as well as a section identifying the triumphs and mistakes of