Reference Entry

Williams, Peter, Sr.

Graham Russell Gao Hodges

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Williams, Peter, Sr.

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Peter Williams Sr. was one of ten children born in New York City to George and Diana Williams, slaves of James Aymar, a prominent local tobacconist. Born in an annex to Aymar's cowshed, Williams often said, “ I was born in as humble a place as my Lord!” Encouraged by Aymar to attend services at the newly formed Wesley Chapel, later known as the John Street Methodist Church, Williams worshipped in the slave gallery. At the chapel he married Mary Durham, also known as Molly, who was an indentured servant for Aymar's wife and a legendary volunteer for Fire Company #11. She served hot coffee and sandwiches to the firemen and is shown in a famous painting pulling a fire truck through blinding snow. During the American Revolution Aymar, a staunch Loyalist, fled to New Brunswick, New Jersey, taking with him his slaves and indentured servants. In 1780, shortly after arriving in New Brunswick, Molly bore a son, Peter; he would be the Williamses only child. When Aymar decided in 1783 to flee again, this time to England, he sold Williams to what was now the John Street Methodist Church for forty pounds. Williams and his family moved into the basement of the parsonage of the church, where he was the sexton and undertaker and Molly worked as a cook and maid for the ministers. Williams also worked as a cigar maker. On 4 November 1785 Williams paid his forty-pound purchase price and became a free man. Such self-purchases accounted for more than 90 percent of the gradual emancipations in the city, many more than were arranged by the white New York Manumission Society. Williams expanded his tobacco work and in 1794 opened his own shop at 41 William Street. In 1808 Williams moved his family and business to 53 Liberty Street, and he purchased the home a few years later. , portrait by an unidentified artist, c. 1810; oil on canvas, about 25 by 24 inches. At the time this portrait was made, Williams was serving as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which he had helped to found about a decade earlier. New-York Historical Society. Williams was a prominent member of several African societies in the city, which served as burial, benevolent, religious, and quasi-political societies. In 1795 one of them, the African Society, negotiated with the city government to close the old Slave Burial Ground north of Chambers Street and move it farther north. In 1799 Williams and other members left the John Street Methodist Church and within a year formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Williams served as a trustee for the new church. His son also worked in the church and, with Williams's enthusiastic support, became active in the antislavery movement. Williams continued his church, social, and business activities until his death in 1823. His son, Peter Williams Jr., became one of the most important African American theologians in the nation, building his career on the strong foundation of hard work, determination, and zeal for freedom and civil rights his parents laid down for him. See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; Methodist Church and African Americans; New York Manumission Society; and Williams, Peter, Jr.

Reference Entry.  572 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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