Farmville Town Council plans to honor Rev. Samuel Williams Jr.

Published 6:45 am Tuesday, June 13, 2023

FARMVILLE – They prayed and sang hymns on the steps of Farmville Baptist Church. It was July 28, 1963 and Rev. J. Samuel Williams Jr. had, along with Rev. Goodwin Douglas, had organized the latest in a series of student civil rights demonstrations in town, bringing almost 500 people together. The goal on this July morning was to integrate downtown churches. 

One portion of the group made it inside of Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, where they sat with then-Longwood University Dean Dr. C.G. Gordon Moss. Another portion of the group tried to worship at Farmville United Methodist Church and was rejected. After trying and being rejected again at Farmville Baptist Church, the group started to pray and sing hymns on the church steps. They were arrested and charged with “disturbing the public worship of God”, the first time that had happened after a “kneel-in” in the South. 

“I felt hurt we were being arrested, to prevent us from worshiping God,” Williams said in a 2017 discussion with East Rockingham High School students. “Singing, praying, listening to the message, just like the people inside were doing. I saw that as a great contradiction there. We didn’t know what to expect but it was something we had to do. You never know how it’s going to end up, but you have to be brave enough to do it.” 

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More than a decade before those protests, Williams was part of another portion of Farmville history. He took part in the April 23, 1951 student strike at Robert Russa Moton High, alongside Barbara Rose Johns.

In a 2016 interview with The Herald, Williams described his time at Moton High School as being challenging and dark.

“We were trying to our way out of academic darkness,” Williams said, adding the students wanted to “(find) a way out of stereotypes.”

Now, the town council wants to honor the pastor who helped organize the “kneel-in” and took part in the student strike, along with many other civil rights protests. He’s known as a civil rights activist and icon, a Farmville historian and to the congregation at Levi Baptist Church in Green Bay, he’s best known as Pastor Williams. Now the town council wants to name a street after him. 

Honoring Rev. Samuel Williams Jr.

During their work session on Wednesday, June 7, the Farmville Town Council took steps to honor Rev. Williams. They moved to rename Watkins Street to Williams Way. Watkins is right off of High Street and is the place where Rev. Williams still lives. 

“I think this is a pretty special case,” Farmville Mayor Brian Vincent said. “I had the honor of seeing Rev. Williams give a sermon, a eulogy recently, and it was something to behold. I had an increased appreciation for what he’s brought to the community and the historical knowledge he has.” 

Farmville Town Manager Dr. Scott Davis said he had been contacted by Vice Mayor Reid to put this on the agenda to discuss, after members of Williams’ family had reached out, asking if something like this could be done. Reid said it was a long time coming. 

“He’s a Civil Rights community icon, been around 80 years or more,” Reid said. “He was a past pastor of First Baptist and Beulah Baptist churches and a historian for Farmville. Now he’s pastor at Levi Baptist Church and involved in a number of programs.” 

For what Rev. Samuel Williams Jr. has done in the community, Reid and other council members said, this is well deserved. 

Now to be clear, this was the council’s work session. While a public hearing isn’t required in a case like this, the council plans to hold one at their meeting this Wednesday at 7 p.m., just to inform people of the coming change and to let them speak up. 

When will this take place? 

Now this won’t happen immediately, in order to help residents adjust. In fact, it won’t take effect until December of this year. That way the Post Office can be notified of the change and know where to deliver mail. Residents on the street can also use that time to change their address on everything from drivers’ licenses to Amazon accounts. The goal is to make the adjustment easy, so no packages get lost or other issues come up.