He wore a Buffalo Soldier hat. He had the emblem of his all-African American cavalry regiment emblazoned on his T-shirts. And when Mr. John B. Williams introduced himself to you — because that is always how he said it — his historic service to his country during World War II inevitably came up.
But Williams never bragged. He had no bluster, no puffed-out-chest blow. And he always asked about you first.
Yet the pride he had for all that he had done was clear. Williams was a public servant. A patriot. A history-maker. A civil rights fighter.
So, when asked, he would indeed talk about what he’d done.
Williams, whose family says he was last surviving Buffalo Soldier in Ohio — it is difficult to find out how many are left in all — died on Friday at the age of 98, just six weeks after losing his wife of more than 70 years, Geraldine.
“His health had been failing, but until Geraldine passed he was managing. He was strong. I had visited not long ago and had a wonderful day,” said lifelong friend Charlene Watkins, the minister of Christian education at Mount Olivet Baptist Church on the East Side. “They had been married 72 years, And the two become one. And he just kind of never recovered after his wife died.”
Williams was drafted into the Army in 1943 and, when assigned to the 28th Horse-Ridden Cavalry Regiment, he became a Buffalo Soldier, the storied all-Black unit that dated back to service on the Western frontier after the American Civil War.
In an interview with The Dispatch in 2008, Williams reflected on his service, saying with a laugh that he still remembered the neck brand of the horse he was given: 6U75. He named him Peanut.
“They plucked me from the streets of Columbus and next thing I know, I’m looking at a mountain with legs,” Williams said. “But I’m as proud of my spurs as the Tuskegee Airmen are of their wings.”
Williams’ regiment was located at Camp Lockett, California, where they provided defense as the country prepared for war. Eventually, Williams’ unit deployed to the European Theater in WWII and was redesignated as a pontoon company. He served in combat with the 7th Army in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany and Belgium.
His military awards included the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Silver Star; WWII Victory Medal with Bronze Star; American Campaign Medal; Good Conduct Medal; and Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal – French Republic.
He was so proud of his service, but being a family man and a man of God really is where Williams found life’s greatest joys, said his daughter, Carla Bailey.
“His foundation was family,” said Bailey, 60 and of the Far East Side. “Daddy has left a phenomenal legacy and that gave him peace, knowing that we would keep the foundation that he built. ‘I want you to carry on what me and Mom always talked about. Take care of family.’ And we will.”
Williams and his younger brother, John, were orphaned as children after their parents died within a few months of one another. The two lived at the Franklin County Children’s Home for years until a family friend adopted the boys.
It was that humble upbringing that forged her father’s belief in fighting for others and standing up to right wrongs, Bailey said.
After his military service, Williams graduated from Ohio State University and later went to work for the U.S. Postal Service. With a college degree in hand, he wondered why he kept getting passed over for promotions. But in reality, he knew why, his daughter recalled. It was because of the color of his skin.
So in 1974, Williams filed a class action complaint of discrimination against management at the Columbus Post Office. While it didn’t help him, the complaint led to the implementation of an affirmative action plan that removed politics from the postal promotion process and created equal employment opportunities for minorities and women.
He retired after a 30-year career.
“Daddy took so much pride in watching so many move up because of the stand that he took,” Bailey said. “No matter what you are going through and what your circumstances are, you can see that light at the end of that tunnel if you have faith.”
Every day, her parents would kneel at the side of the bed and pray. And they taught their five children the value of a life lived in service.
“We were raised … to minister to those who needed ministered to,” she said. “There was never negativity in our home against anyone. Somebody is sick. Go visit. Someone needs food. You take it. His philosophy in life was the Ten Commandments. They were his backbone.”
In addition to his military service, Williams made an impact in his community through his civil rights activism, leadership and volunteering. He wrote a column for years in the Columbus Call & Post, and never hesitated to call out politicians and community leaders who he thought were doing wrong.
Among his many honors were inductions into both the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame and the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame.
At the end of the day, Williams was always just trying to leave things better than he found them.
“I can’t remember too many times when Mr. Williams wasn’t smiling. He loved his community so much,” said Watkins, who was a next-door neighbor of Williams’ when they were just children. “He did not mind sharing his journey, and he made the world a better place.”
In addition to Bailey and her husband, Jonathon Sr., Williams’ survivors include children John (Terrie) Williams, Ronald Williams, Cheryl (Dale) Patterson, and Carolyn (Stephen Sr.) Francis; nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Private funeral services are set for Saturday at Resurrection Missionary Baptist Church, 258 Hosack St., where a walk-through visitation will be held from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. The 9 a.m. service will be livestreamed on the church’s website and on the funeral home website at www.diehl-whittaker.com.
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