From the NFL to the record industry, Monmouth’s Mayo Williams broke racial barriers
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Monmouth’s rich African American heritage dates to 1834, when a Kentucky slave named Henry Haley was liberated by his master in Warren County Commissioners Court and became a respected farmer just south of the city. As we observe Black History Month this month, the story of another remarkable black figure from our past is particularly worth celebrating.
J. Mayo Williams (1894–1980) was a trailblazer in athletics, higher education and the music industry. Although much of his adult life was based in Chicago, his formative years from early childhood through high school were spent in the Maple City.
Growing up in a poor, single-parent household on the south side of Monmouth, all of the odds seemed stacked against Williams one day graduating from an Ivy League University, playing in the National Football League and becoming a successful record producer. But Mayo, better known by the nickname “Ink,” made the most of his athletic, academic and entrepreneurial talents.
Born the son of a sawmill worker in Pine Bluff, Ark., tragic circumstances would cause Willliams to relocate to Monmouth at the age of 4. His grandmother, a former slave named Missouri McFall, had originally settled in Monmouth with her daughter Millie about 1885, after leaving their native Tennessee. Working as a washerwoman, Missouri was left to live on her own two years later, when 23-year-old Millie married Daniel Williams, also a native Tennessean.
In 1887, Millie gave birth to a son, Luther, before the couple left Monmouth for Arkansas. There, the couple had four more children, including Mayo, born in 1894.
On Nov. 16, 1901, Mayo’s father was shot to death over a domestic dispute with a co-worker named Fred Hillard. After having his life threatened by Williams, Hillard left work and retreated to his residence. Williams appeared outside Hillard’s home that night, cursing and brandishing a large pistol. When Hillard and his wife demanded that he leave, Williams refused, and Hillard in self-defense shot him three times.
Millie and her young family soon returned to Monmouth, where they lived with the William Penny family at 807 East Fifth Ave. and Millie did laundry. In 1905, she married William Miles McGruder, a pottery worker from Macomb, whom she would later divorce. The McGruders and Millie’s children moved into a house at 417 South Fifth St.
Meanwhile, young Mayo excelled in the public schools, entering Monmouth High School in 1908, where he also proved himself a gifted athlete. In 1910, as halfback for the Monmouth Maroons, he helped propel the team to the state championship game against Rockford for state championship.
“All, who have seen Williams play,” wrote his coach, “have simply gasped in astonishment and are still wondering how he does it. His equal in dodging, speed, straight-arming, goal-kicking, tackling and grabbing forward passes cannot be found in the central states.”
As a sophomore, Williams had appeared in a wrestling match at Monmouth’s Pattee Opera House as part of a warmup to a professional match. In 1912, he represented MHS at the state track and field championship in Champaign, where he won two medals, bringing his total medal count to 23.
Williams got a taste of the wider world that spring, when he went to Chicago for a time to stay with his brother, a railroad porter; then headed to Manitou, Colo., working for Mrs. H.R. Moffet, wife of the Monmouth newspaper publisher, who ran a summer resort there called the Sunnyside Inn, which catered to Monmouth residents.
It is uncertain when or if Williams earned his high school diploma, but in 1916 he enrolled at Ivy League Brown University on an athletic scholarship. He had been recommended for admission by Fritz Pollard, a football star for Brown, who was the first African American to play in the Rose Bowl and the first elected to the National College Football Hall of Fame. Pollard, who grew up in Rogers Park, Ill., had originally met Williams at a track meet in 1912. They became roommates at Brown and partners in a suit-pressing business operated out of their dorm room.
Over his four seasons at Brown, Williams helped lead the football squad to a 27–10–1 record and he also won the New England championship in the 40-yard dash. Williams’ college career was interrupted in 1918, when he enlisted as a private in the Army.
Williams was a charter member of Brown’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the nation’s first intercollegiate African American fraternity. He graduated in 1921 with a degree in philosophy and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
While hoping to follow his college roommate Pollard in a banking career, Williams received an opportunity to try out for professional football, and was signed by the Hammond Indiana Pros, for which he played until 1926. He also played one game each for the Ohio-based Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Bulldogs and Dayton Triangles. At the beginning of his pro career, he was one of only three black players in what would become the National Football League in 1922.
Because the football season spanned only three months and the average player salary was only $150 per game, Williams had to look elsewhere for income. Living with his mother in Chicago, he sold bathtub gin to a Chicago jazz club and in 1922 began writing a sports column for The Chicago Whip, a racially militant paper edited by a fellow Alpha Phi Alpha brother, Joseph Bibbs.
Bibbs would facilitate Williams’ entry into the music industry. The brother-in-law of the owner of Black Swan records — a Harlem-based jazz and blues recording company — Bibbs became the Chicago distributor for Black Swan and appointed Williams to become his collection agent. Although he knew nothing about music, Williams eagerly accepted the opportunity, recalling later, “I wanted to go into something where I could be the organizer; show how to do it.”
When Black Swan failed, its master recordings were purchased by Paramount, and Williams visited Paramount’s executives to petition for a job. “Race” records were new to the industry and the executives had little understanding of how they should be marketed. Williams was named manager of Chicago Music, a new music publishing company that had rights to Paramount properties. Although he was given no salary, he received a portion of sales royalty from artists whose sessions he produced.
Williams went against the grain among fellow educated African Americans of the time, who considered blues music to be unsophisticated and potentially damaging to upward mobility for blacks. While growing up in Monmouth, he had developed an appreciation for the genre from his mother and believed the blues to be a proud part of his racial heritage. When the blues singers he signed caused some in the industry to label him “Mayo Williams and his dogs,” he replied, “My dogs are thoroughbreds.”
His prize discovery at Paramount was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who had come north after a career with traveling tent shows across the south. In 1924, Williams produced her jazz standard “See See Rider,” which featured on trumpet the young Louis Armstrong, who had just arrived in Chicago. The same year, Williams married Aleta Stokes, a schoolteacher, whose name would also appear in the credits for some of his future recordings.
In 1927, after being edged out of his Paramount position by a white salesman, Williams started The Chicago Record Company, marketing jazz, blues and gospel records under the Black Patti label, which produced the first recorded version of the song later known as “Stagger Lee.” After that label failed, he moved on to a position with Brunswick Records.
When the stock market crash caused record sales to plummet, Williams took a football coaching position with Morehouse University from 1931–1933. The following year, he was hired to head the “race records” department of Decca, where he recorded musicians such as Alberta Hunter, Blind Boy Fuller, and Mahalia Jackson. In 1946, Williams founded Ebony Records in Chicago, where he recorded a young Muddy Waters. From 1945–1949 he also ran the Harlem label, based in New York City.
After Williams’ wife, Aleta, died in 1968, he continued to operate Ebony Records for a time, turning out his last single in 1972. That year, he was interviewed by jazz historian George Paulus, an aficionado of the Delta blues.
Williams expressed to Paulus his disdain for early blues artists, saying he preferred the “Ma Rainey” style of the blues, performed with good diction and full orchestra. “Those low-down country guys,” he said, “could play a few numbers and then they weren’t good for nothing. Blind Lemon froze to death in a hallway. They were just drunken, low-down guys. They weren’t people I wanted to hang around with for more than it took to do my business. I’m not a country blues fan.”
Although many histories assert that Williams’ nickname “Ink” was derived from his ability to ink contracts with star performers, Paulus recalled following the interview that “he mentioned a bit about himself as an avid football player in college and his nickname ‘Ink’ because of his skin color.”
With his record producing career essentially over and a large stock of records on hand, Williams placed an ad in a 1973 issue of the Chicago Defender, offering record dealers 50 free jazz and blues records if they purchased 50 records at 10 cents apiece.
Williams died at a Chicago nursing home on Jan. 2, 1980, and was buried with his wife in Burr Oak Cemetery, the historic African American burial grounds in Alsip, Ill., that would become the focus of a 2009 grave-reselling scandal. (Their graves were not disturbed.)
Williams was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2004.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking on western Illinois history for more than 35 years.