A Chorus of Accomplishments

By Don Rhodes
Photos courtesy of Wellington City Libraries

My Lord, He calls me,
He calls me by the thunder;
The trumpet sounds within my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Steal away, steal away,
Steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

–“Steal Away,” Gospel Spiritual

When former Augusta resident Robert Bradford Williams was singing tenor with the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville, Tenn., in 1886 and 1887, the Negro spiritual “Steal Away” was one of their most popular performances. He may have sung “I ain’t got long to stay here,” but Williams’ productive life of accomplishments spanned nearly 80 years, from his birth in Civil War-era Georgia until he died in New Zealand.

When Williams returned home to Augusta in 1908, he had won a scholarship to Williston Academy in Massachusetts; obtained a bachelor’s degree from Yale University (second in his class); taught students in Waynesboro, Ga.; toured in England, Australia and New Zealand with the Fisk Jubilee Singers; obtained a degree to practice law; became choirmaster of a Methodist church in New Zealand; and was to become the longest-serving mayor of the Wellington Borough of Onslow.

In the 1991 journal Music in New Zealand, Chris Bourke observed, “Picture a black American talking to a Maori elder on the banks of the Whanganui River in 1887. The American has come to New Zealand to sing gospel music but has decided to stay here to study law.”

Williams was born in Appling, Ga., the only child of Jane and Aiken Williams. He grew up in Augusta until earning a scholarship to Williston Academy in Easthampton, Mass. Williams went to Yale University where he balanced his affinity for knowledge with his love of sports. 

It’s unclear exactly how Williams got connected with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a vocal group to be among the first to introduce traditional spirituals to audiences outside of the Southern states and overseas to music lovers including Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand reports that the Jubilee singers “toured through Australia from Thursday Island in the north to the most southerly point of South Australia and twice they went through New Zealand. Their success in these southern lands was phenomenal; no such singing having been previously heard.” When the troupe went to India, Mr. Williams elected to stay behind, having decided to remain in Wellington.

Gábor Tóth, a New Zealand history specialist, discovered that Williams became a lawyer and was admitted to the bar and practiced with the firm of Brown, Skerrett and Dean before establishing his practice. He would later form a partnership with Vincent Meredith, who became a Crown prosecutor in Auckland. 

The Black lawyer also became choirmaster of the Methodist Church in Wellington, singing with local operatic societies for the principal tenor parts of “The Messiah,” and served on the Wellington Hospital board. In 1902, Williams became mayor of the Wellington Borough of Onslow and held the position for five years.

When Williams returned to Augusta, the assembly hall of the “colored YMCA,” founded by the Reverend Dr. Charles T. Walker of Tabernacle Baptist Church, was packed to hear Williams deliver his remarks.

“The seating capacity of the large extension assembly hall was texted to its utmost limit and nearly a hundred men were compelled to stand during the whole service,” Floyd wrote. “These men came together to hear a colored man speak; a colored man who had made a really remarkable record during his 23 years’ absence from Augusta, the place where he was born.” 

Photo courtesy of Wellington City Libraries.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers

To a captivated audience, Williams retold the extraordinary events of his life journey including his visit to President [Theodore] Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. He spoke about the manners and customs of the people in New Zealand, the natives called Maoris, who number 47,000 only out of a population of more than 1,000,000 people, and how he would be heading to London where he had a private appointment with King Edward VII. 

Perhaps much of Williams’ outstanding musical and legal profession life could be defined by a quote uncovered by researcher Tóth in which Williams declared, “I shall remember, with more genuine pleasure, my association with this divinest art [music] than with any other occupation of my life.”

Seen in the February/March 2024 issue of Augusta magazine.

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