Breaking barriers and creating positive changes in his community seems to come naturally to Mr. C. Joseph Williams (’74) who was one of the first African-Americans to attend Casady School and was the first African-American to be elected to the Tulsa City Council, where his councilor peers elected him chairman.
Mr. Williams first attended Casady in the sixth grade, when Oklahoma was segregated by race. Mr. Williams’ father, Reverend Cecil E. Williams, was pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Oklahoma City and his church members were some of the first African-American students to attend Casady. Rev. Williams taught Latin at Casady, assisted with morning chapel, and was instrumental in the integration of public schools in Oklahoma City as well as at Casady. Mr. Williams’ parents taught him about public service at an early age. His father was very involved in the 1960s civil rights movement and served on several community boards. His father showed him that change is made by investing time in one’s community, and that every person has “a responsibility to do things bigger than just [themselves] but for mankind as a whole.” His mother was a nurse who demonstrated compassion to him by helping the sick and how one person can make a positive impact on the lives of others.
As the first African-American to be elected to the Tulsa City Council and then to be elected as their chairman, Mr. Williams was keenly aware of the historical significance. He was pleased the other city councilors showed their belief and confidence in him as he represented the council at meetings and events. He described how many of his constituents and other Tulsa citizens reached out to him to share their pride in an African-American leading the financial and legislative business of the Tulsa City Council. Mr. Williams was conscious of the message his position sent to youths; by having him break this barrier, they could also reach higher goals. As a City Councilman, he helped pass municipal legislation, reviewed policies, developed proposed sales taxes and bond issues for citizens to vote on, and prepared the annual city budget. Mr. Williams is most proud of creating the Tulsa Youth Council that allows youth from all parts of Tulsa to develop leadership skills by giving them a voice in their city government as they are able to present proposals to the city council.
While working in Tulsa at ONEOK and Oklahoma Natural Gas, community service was promoted by his employers. This supportive network allowed Mr. Williams to make an even bigger impact on helping his community. Mr. Williams’ list of accomplishments is impressively long, and his devotion to public service is admirable. He has won a multitude of awards for his contributions, and he shared that the award most meaningful to him is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Keeping the Dream Alive Award. Mr. Williams greatly admires Dr. King and his sacrifices for justice. “The award represented hope to me, that if we all work together things might be tough today but will get better for the generations to come. I was in the 7th grade at Casady when he was assassinated, and while some of the students there saw him as a troublemaker and deserving of his ultimate fate, so many more of my classmates comforted me and expressed their understanding of the grief I was feeling. It was a sad day and time for me but also when I felt I belonged at Casady and that my classmates were also my friends.”
Mr. Williams is currently involved with the Tulsa Law Enforcement Community Relations Advisory Board that discusses law enforcement issues and policies, how to improve training and practices, and how to improve transparency to citizens in order to have a cooperative relationship that leads to safer neighborhoods and a safer city. Mr. Williams is also one of the co-founders and Founding President of The 100 Black Men of Tulsa, an affiliate of The 100 Black Men of America. They serve as mentors to vulnerable youths, help with gang prevention, assist elementary students with reading, and have provided around $50,000 in college scholarships over the past ten years. The members also assist with teaching youth about healthy lifestyles, and provide the youth with job shadowing and entrepreneur training.
When asked for his advice for students who want to pursue public service, Mr. Williams stressed the importance of having a passion for it and not doing it for titles or prestige, as he explained, “Take it seriously and try to make real positive differences in the lives of others. Read up on history so you have knowledge of human nature and how decisions have impacted our society and why you would make decisions differently. Surround yourself with other youths who also believe in public service to keep yourself motivated and encouraged when the inevitable obstacles stand in your way, but never give up or quit in doing what you know is right.”
Although Mr. Williams grew up in Oklahoma City, he has been a Tulsa resident for many years. As such, he is familiar with the history of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, where the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred a century ago. Although it is one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, it remains one of the least-known. From May 31 to June 1, 1921 a mob of several thousand white authorities and citizens attacked homes, businesses, and residents of the prosperous black community of the Greenwood District. Around 300 people died and thousands were left homeless, most of whom were African Americans. Homes, churches and businesses were reduced to rubble in the Greenwood District, and insurance companies rejected residents’ claims. Mr. Williams had the opportunity to personally meet and visit with some of the Race Massacre victims, and Mr. Williams said, “I was overwhelmed that those who stayed to rebuild never had any doubt that they would. They believed in themselves and were never ever going to give up the tasks of rebuilding – and they did [rebuild]. Oklahoma residents should know this history in school. It is a story that can be uplifting to everyone regardless of race, color or ethnicity.”
The determination of the Greenwood community enabled them to rebuild Black Wall Street and reclaim their natural rights. When asked for advice in helping to make our society more inclusive of all races and cultures, Mr. Williams responded, “I am actually encouraged by our young people today. They are more willing to stand up together on issues for justice. I also believe that those in leadership must continually be examples of goodwill and civility towards others because we look up to our [leaders,] and they can influence a lot of people’s behavior.”
It was at Casady where Mr. Williams learned the importance of education and that knowledge is power. He learned the value of being disciplined in his studies and that a demanding education was a privilege. After graduating from Casady, Mr. Williams was part of the varsity track team while attending the University of Oklahoma. Balancing college sports with academics was not easy, but he realized the importance of prioritizing academics over athletics. His advice for college athletes is to “understand that they will have to sacrifice a good part of the social and party life which is prevalent in college. They can still manage and balance academics, athletics, and a social life as long as they stay up on their studies first and don’t fall behind.” Sports taught Mr. Williams many lessons, including discipline and teamwork. Learning to work collectively as a team was instrumental in Mr. Williams’ success in the corporate world.
Mr. Williams is grateful for his Casady education with “the best teachers” and he “would not trade that experience for anything.” He is very thankful for the great friends he met at Casady, some of whom are still his best friends. Mr. Williams also wanted to express his appreciation for the Casady choir singing at his father’s funeral in 1981, when Reverend Cecil E. Williams passed away from cancer at the age of 62.