October 2002

Ted Williamson -
From Sharecropper to Community Leader


by Erin COLLINS

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Family man, hard worker, man of faith, entrepreneur; these happen to be a few words that describe the many sides of Ted Williamson. He spent his early childhood in the south and now enjoys retired life after a successful career as a funeral director in Niagara Falls, NY.
   
Williamson was born in Aiken, SC in 1923 in a small rural community. His family lived on a sharecropping farm. They rented their farm from the landowner, who in turn owned a portion of their crops. They were always in debt to the landowner.
   
“Poverty was the name of the day,” said Williamson, “Life was hard. Everyone was looking forward to a new day, something that could be more positive, a better quality of life.”
   
The better quality of life that most black families were looking for existed in the north.

“People did not have radios and many could not read,” said Williamson. “General conversation was about what other people had and what you could have if certain things happened. It was a well known fact that if you got to go north, you were almost guaranteed a better way of life.”

So his father moved to Niagara Falls. He found a job as a laborer at Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. He worked for a while until he saved up enough money to send for his wife, daughter and two sons. They boarded a train to New York in 1927.

“It was a blessing; better life, better everything. There were no tears when we left South Carolina,” said Williamson.

As a young man, Williamson joined the Marine Corps. He ended up spending five months in a naval hospital in 1943 due to an illness. He knew that his physical structure would not allow him to qualify for the general job market, so he thought about what he could do with his life.

“I had a bad experience at age 13 when I lost my aunt,” he said. With no African American funeral homes in Niagara Falls at the time, they were forced to use a Caucasian one. Williamson’s uncle was turned away because they had no life insurance and little money.

“I promised my uncle and my dad that one day I would be a funeral director in this town and make sure people are treated with dignity and respect and provided the kind of service that they ought to have at that particular time.”

After attending embalming school in Syracuse, NY, Williamson searched for an apprenticeship. He ended up completing one in New York City because white funeral directors in his neighborhood were afraid they would lose business if a black person worked in their establishment.

Starting any business takes a good amount of money and, being a poor young man, Williamson worked at Little Joe’s restaurant, owned by his parents on the East Side of Niagara Falls. They specialized in southern cooking, especially fried chicken, collard greens, corn bread and barbequed ribs. The restaurant did well until a fire destroyed it in 1951.

Since the fire left him unemployed, Williamson went to work at Union Carbide, like his father before him, but was eventually laid off. He started a private janitorial service and also worked for Merritt, Chapman and Scott construction company that helped construct the power plant in Niagara Falls.

He continued to support his family and manage to scrimp and save any extra cash for his dream. In September of 1959, he finally had enough money to purchase a building on 10th street in Niagara Falls and on March 17, 1960 he opened Williamson Funeral Home. The business moved to it’s current location at 635 Main Street in 1974 and has been in business for 42 years.

“You’re helping people when they are in their deepest distress emotionally...you sometimes have to think for them,” said Williamson. He stressed the importance of making sure people can be thankful for the service.

According to Williamson, being a good businessman does not just involve good business. It also means giving back to the community by “being active and helping people in meaningful ways.” During his lifetime, he has been a member of the Boy Scouts of America, the United Way of Niagara, the Niagara University counsel, the NFTA and several other organizations.

Williamson and his wife Gertrude have been married since March 1952, a 50 year relationship, still going strong.

“She pursued me, that’s a fact,” said Williamson. They have five children. Tanya, the oldest, owns a day spa in Willington, Delaware. Jean specializes in commercial radio advertisements in Buffalo. Ted, Jr. works for a security brokerage company in Boston, MA. Michael now manages the funeral home and Michelle works as the communications manager for Bell South in Atlanta, GA. They also have 9 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.

Religion plays an important part in Williamson’s life. He has been a member of the New Hope Baptist Church for 65 years and is one of the oldest members.

“It gives you peace if you believe there is a God,” he said, “Prayer will see you through...If I have faith in my God, good things will happen.”

In his spare time now that he has retired, Williamson enjoys gardening in his huge backyard at home. He also loves to travel. Every February he goes to Acapulco, Mexico. He also frequently travels to his favorite place, Montego Bay, Jamaica and back to his childhood home in South Carolina, among other places.

Even though retired, Williamson still feels good service is extremely important.

“Being in a small community like this and knowing most of the people we feel that we have a good reputation of helping people when they really need it,” he said, “Our motto here is service first and of course, dignity, and respect. Somehow everything else follows along.”


Erin Collins is a Staff Associate with Living Prime Time.

 

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