Obituary for R. Jerome Williams, M.D.: Family physician and civil rights leader | St. Louis Public Radio

Obituary for R. Jerome Williams, M.D.: Family physician and civil rights leader

Mar 20, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In 1963, when it appeared that blacks protesting the discriminatory practices at Jefferson Bank and Trust Co. in St. Louis were not being taken seriously, Dr. Jerome Williams thought it was time to step up and step in.

He organized doctors and other professionals to join the marchers.

“Jerome Williams did a fantastic job of organizing support,” said civil rights activist Norman R. Seay. “We saluted him because so many people were against what we were doing, even many middle-class blacks.”

Dr. Williams, an internist, had been practicing medicine in St. Louis since 1947, when he interned at Homer G. Phillips Hospital. He had been fighting bigotry his entire life.

He died Saturday (March 16, 2013) of a heart attack at his home in Clayton where he had lived since last June. For most of his life, he lived in the Central West End. He was 87.

His memorial service will be April 13 at Pilgrim Congregational Church.

Turning Point

St. Louis mirrored the nation’s unrest in 1963, the year Martin Luther King Jr. declared that he had a dream during the March on Washington.

In June, Dr. Williams was one of the leaders of a march in front of the downtown offices of the St. Louis Board of Education to protest the resegregation of students. In August, media coverage helped propel him to join the bank protest.

"The papers were calling them agitators, so we decided to picket to show that professional people supported them," Dr. Williams told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1988, the demonstrations’ 25th anniversary.

Future U.S. Rep. Bill Clay, Robert Curtis, then head of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) and Seay were among the first marchers to go to jail.

“Jerome demonstrated at the jailhouse to give us encouragement,” Seay said.

Perhaps Dr. Williams was moved by an earlier banking experience.

"When I first started in practice, I went to First National Bank in St. Louis, where I had a checking and savings account, and asked for a loan,” Dr. Williams recalled. “They treated me like dirt; their attitude was that it was just ridiculous for a black man, even a professional, to make such a request.”

One result of the demonstrations was the formation two years later of Gateway National Bank in St. Louis. Dr. Williams became a director and later chair of Gateway, Missouri’s only minority-owned bank. It was acquired by Central Bank in Kansas City in 2009.

Many, including Seay, believe the Jefferson Bank protests were the turning point for better jobs for African Americans in St. Louis.

Piercing the veil

Dr. Williams became a steady voice for civil rights and civic leadership.

In 1969, he was elected to the St. Louis Community College District Board, later becoming the board’s first black president, and was a charter member of the Community College Foundation. He convinced his neighbor to join the foundation’s board and accompany him on occasion in other pursuits.

“He was a very engaging and a very, very bright guy,” said Emory Kesteloot, a retired accountant who, with his wife, Winnie, became the Williamses’ neighbors in 1999. “He introduced me to black leadership groups that expanded my knowledge of the local community and gave me a better appreciation of what people like Jerome had done.”

Dr. Williams had served on the Missouri Board of the Healing Arts, the Physicians Health Association board, Harris-Stowe State University board of regents, the Missouri Botanical Garden board of trustees and the St. Louis Police Board. During his service on the St. Louis Symphony board, Dr. Williams helped establish the minority outreach program. He co-chaired the program with former St. Louis City Police Chief Clarence Harmon.

He was on the board of the Royal Vagabonds, which has become much more than the social club for upwardly mobile African-American men it set out to be in the 1930s. Its social events now fund student scholarships and programs.

Dr. Williams was one of the first three African-American members of the Veiled Prophet, an exclusive organization that, for many, had long represented discrimination and class distinction. When he was invited to join in 1979, along with fellow physicians William C. Banton II and Eugene Mitchell, he did so despite some well-founded trepidation.

"I went along with it to pave the way for future generations," he told the Beacon in 2011. "But I paid lots of hell."

His daughter, Jeralyn James, became the first African-American maid of honor of the VP Ball – and Dr. Williams became the object of a protest.

A group called ACTION wanted the VP eliminated not, integrated, but the demonstrators cheered Jeralyn and her father’s arrival, calling out proudly, “Go, Dr. Williams!”

The specialist

Roy Jerome Williams was born in St. Louis on June 11, 1925, the younger of Dr. William R. Williams and Cynthia W. Williams’ two sons. After graduating from Sumner High School, he attended Morehouse College. While there, he enlisted in the U.S. Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

He was stationed at Camp Shelby, Miss., where he recalled in a 1988 Post-Dispatch interview that German and Italian prisoners of war were permitted to shop in the military stores; black soldiers could not.

“That grates,” he said.

The Army, however, put him into a program that enabled him to complete medical school at Meharry College in 1947. He returned home for his residency at Homer G. Phillips, the “black” hospital. He contracted tuberculosis and was sidelined for two years. The disease was considered incurable; Dr. Williams recovered.

He quipped that by virtue of the illness, he was a “TB specialist,” making him the most logical choice to head the hospital’s tuberculosis services.  He did so for two years, whereupon he was appointed director of the outpatient and internal medicine department.

In 1951, he founded his first private family practice. He opened Williams Clinic in 1964, and later Gateway to Health, which his son, Dr. R. Jerome Williams Jr., now heads.

His work over the years won him numerous accolades, including being named one of the NAACP's 100 Most Inspiring St. Louisans in 2009.

‘Remember when’

Ida Woolfolk, a longtime friend, said Dr. Williams collected historic photos that he would inscribe “remember when” and give to friends. The memento could be of an event that he had orchestrated.

“He always came up with a refreshing idea, which meant an assignment for one of his friends,” Woolfolk laughed. “He manufactured stuff for us to do.”

Everybody was special to Dr. Williams, Woolfolk said, but none more than his wife and children.

His daughter, Kathy Williams, recalled a special time with her father: walking the picket line at Jefferson Bank.

“I was so proud holding my father’s hand,” she said. “I had a huge sense of pride as only a 7- or 8-year-old could, but a clear sense of rightness of what we were doing – fighting for equal rights because we were humans like anyone else.”

Dr. Williams was preceded in death by his parents and brother, William R. Williams, M.D.

His survivors include his wife of 64 years, Carol Nelson Williams, his five children, Dianne Powell (Kenneth Powell, D.D.S.), St. Louis; R. Jerome Williams Jr., M.D. (Marva Williams), St. Louis; Kathy J. Williams (Douglas Carlston), San Rafael, Calif.; Wendell Williams, M.D. (Kim Williams), Muskogee, Okla., and Jeralyn James, St. Louis; 15 grandchildren, four step-grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m., on Saturday, April 13, at Pilgrim Congregational Church, 826 Union Boulevard, St Louis.

Memorials in lieu of flowers would be appreciated to Morehouse College, 830 Westview Drive Southwest, Atlanta, Ga. 30314, www.morehouse.edu/ or the Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63110, www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.