Norfolk, Virginia: The Legacy of Clara Anna Williams (1825-1883)

Mt. Auburn (formerly Sharp Street) Cemetery historical marker, Baltimore, Maryland, 2014. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

Mrs. Clara Anna Williams, one of the widest known and most respected colored women of this city, died on Saturday and was buried yesterday. She was born in Norfolk, Va., October 15, 1825. In many ways she was a remarkable woman. She was the president of nine different societies, and was a permanent member of several others. She also ranked high in the secret orders. The first of these beneficial associations was organized in 1848. It is known as “The Daughters of Jerusalem.” From 1848 to 1879 the societies under her administration paid out to sick persons and others in distress $59,241.86. The present capital of the societies is $5,914.99. Two of the organizations are named after her. The news of her death Saturday spread rapidly among the colored people and on Sunday nearly 500 persons called to see her remains, which were laid out at her late home in St. Mary’s street, between Druid Hill and Pennsylvania avenues. Many of the callers brought flowers with them, and all showed appreciation of her worth by sincerely praising her good works. The funeral services were held in Sharp Street M. E. Church. The Rev. Perry G. Walker, of Alexandria, Va., officiated, assisted by the Rev. Messrs. Dansbury and Carroll, of Baltimore. The burial was in Sharp Street Cemetery. Several hundred mourners were present and also delegates from the beneficial and secret societies. The delegates alone occupied fifteen hacks. Mrs. Williams’ husband is Geo. Williams, a native of Frederick, Md., and a courteous and popular colored man.1


Mrs. Clara Anna Williams appears in the 1870 Census in residence located in Baltimore’s twentieth ward. Clara, aged forty-nine, was noted as a laundress, while husband George, aged fifty, was documented as a drayman, in possession of three thousand dollars of real estate, and a personal estate valued at nine hundred dollars. Also in the home were son Benjamin, aged eight, in school, and boarders Emeline Spencer,  a waitress, Robert H. Williams, a drayman, and Moses King, a brickmaker.2

By 1870, Clara had already founded two of the benevolent organizations in which she served as president. According to the Baltimore Sun, one of those organizations, the Daughters of Clara Anna Williams, was founded in 1863, and the second, the Rising Junior Sons and Daughters of Clara A. Williams, was founded in 1868. In 1879, the Baltimore Sun reported that Clara was president of nine African American benevolent associations, including her namesake societies, which contributed a cumulative amount of over fifty-nine thousand dollars to the social welfare of the African American citizens of Baltimore. The other societies were the Rising Daughters of Sharon (est. 1866), Sharon Branch (est. 1873), Rising Star of Bethlehem (est. 1877), United Daughters of Jerusalem (est. 1848), Daughters of Henry W. Martin (est. 1855), and Williams Branch (est. 1863).3

In the 1880 Census, Clara and family were documented in a residence on St. Mary’s Street, Baltimore. George, aged fifty-nine, was noted as a butter dealer, while Clara, aged forty-nine, was identified as a domestic, “keeping house.” Their son, Benjamin, aged eighteen, worked as a waiter.4

Bird’s Eye View of Baltimore, Maryland, 1869. St. Mary’s Street is identified in yellow. Library of Congress.
St. Mary’s Street, Baltimore, Maryland, 1869. Library of Congress

Per the obituary, Clara Anna Williams passed away on June 30, 1883, and was interred in Sharp Street Cemetery, now known as Mount Auburn Cemetery, on July 2, 1883. Her husband, George Williams, may the “George Williams” who passed away in July, 1888, Baltimore, and is also interred in Mount Auburn (Sharp Street) Cemetery. Clara’s gravestone, a tablet, contains the symbol of the cross, a symbol of the Christian faith, or a variation of the symbol of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven. The epitaph reads: “Clara Anna Williams/Beloved Wife of George Williams/Born in Norfolk Va/October 15 1825/Died June 30 1883.” George Williams also has a tablet grave marker, that has sunken into the earth over time.

Tablet grave of Clara Anna Williams (1825-1883), Mount Auburn Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: MEdwards, FindaGrave.
Tablet grave of George Williams (ca. 1819-1888), Mount Auburn Cemetery. Photo: Nancy Sheads, FindaGrave.

I visited Mount Auburn Cemetery with my family in 2014. I’d read a story on the reclamation of the cemetery in 2012, and was curious to see the results. The “before” photos of Mt. Auburn looked similar to the state of our family’s ancestral burial grounds in Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Richmond, Virginia, and several counties in North Carolina. Aside from it’s immense size, thirty-three plus acres, we noticed the state of the cemetery, with sections closest to the main entrance, on the north side (Waterview Avenue) somewhat maintained, while most of the central and rear sections of the cemetery were completely overgrown. The entrances to these sections of the cemetery, off Annapolis Avenue, were closed. Clara and her husband George rest near the main entrance, possibly the oldest section of the cemetery with most of the larger monuments and statuary.

Section near the main entrance (Waterside Avenue) of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2014. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Sign marking Section C of Mount Auburn Cemetery, along Hollins Ferry Rd., 2014. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
The grave of John Mann (1855-1956), Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2014. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

In some of the rear sections, we could see evidence of families clearing their own ancestral plots in order to gain access. We also spotted a hawk calmly perched on a gravestone very near the roadway, a sign of plentiful food (rats, mice, etc.); great for the bird, but not so great for sacred resting grounds.

A plot cleared by family members, Mount Auburn Cemetery, bounded by Annapolis Rd. to the east, and several industrial sites on the south side, 2014. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

 

 

  1. The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 3 July 1883, p. 4, c. 4; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 4 February 2020).
  2. Ancestry, “1870 U. S. Census,” database online, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ :accessed 4 February 2020.), Baltimore, Maryland, dist. 0020, p. 14; citing, “Year: 1870; Census Place: Baltimore Ward 20, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland; Roll: M593_580; Page: 419B; Family History Library Film: 552079.”
  3. The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 3 March 1879, p. 4, c. 4; image copy, Newspapers (https://newspapers.com/ : accessed 4 February 2020.)
  4. Ancestry, “1880 U. S. Census,” database online, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ :accessed 4 February 2020.), Baltimore, Maryland, dist. 206, p. 4; citing, “Year: 1880; Census Place: Baltimore, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland; Roll: 505; Page: 335D; Enumeration District: 206.”

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