Pride in Place
Raleigh’s longtime social orchestrator extraordinaire
by Catherine Currin
photographs by Madeline Gray
G. Wesley Williams spent much of his life in a house on Hargett Street, just a few blocks east from Moore Square. From that downtown Raleigh post, he has watched the city go up around him and endure many cultural seasons. At 97, his mind remains sharp, and Williams’s historical account is one brimming with firsthand experience. “I was born near Raleigh, and I’ve lived here for 97 years. I’ve seen it grow tremendously, and it’s just a wonderful city that’s going to keep on growing.”
Williams has had a hand in Raleigh’s growth through some 70 years of service to the city, both in his career and through volunteer efforts. Nowadays, Williams has moved slightly northwest, off of Glen Eden Drive, and his time is spent in more social clubs than civic, but it’s all still rooted in an effusive passion for hometown. “I love Raleigh, I’m crazy about it. I’ve never been officially given the title, but many people refer to me as ‘Mr. Raleigh.’”
Williams was born near the music pavilion at Walnut Creek, an area that back then was vast farmland. Facing financial hardships, the Williams family traded in their farm and settled on the edge – now in the midst – of downtown Raleigh. Williams entered the workforce at age 17: His first venture was founding the Young Business Men’s Club in 1937.
He eventually moved on to the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, where he was executive director for 50 years. There, Williams says he discovered fulfilling work. “It was not only a job, it was a great pleasure. I had an important part in helping to build Raleigh.” Before his retirement in 1990, Williams made strides in Raleigh’s development, including overseeing planning committees for downtown’s first parking decks and the evolution of Fayetteville Street. Meanwhile, he organized and directed 46 Raleigh Christmas parades, he says, and rode on the firetruck concluding each one. He recalls the busy five decades fondly. “I’m sure that nobody in Raleigh has participated in more groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings than I have.”
Not only was he a pioneer for Raleigh’s infrastructure, Williams was instrumental in integrating restaurants during the civil rights movement. He says it’s what he’s most proud of. “One of the greatest things I’ve ever been able to do is to play a major role when we were having all the trouble with segregation.” He worked with the Merchants Association and North Carolina Sen. John Winters to integrate S&W Cafeteria, formerly on the corner of Fayetteville and Davie streets. The S&W decision effectively began a domino effect throughout the city.
Ever seeking fulfilling work, Williams is also one of the most decorated members of Civitan International, he says. He served the Raleigh chapter in several capacities, from chaplain to district governor and then president. He was also vice president of the greater International club. His son, John Williams, says he’s received countless awards for his hard work with the group. For instance, with the club, he helped found Hilltop Home, a center near downtown assisting children with developmental and medical disabilities.
‘Strictly fun and fellowship’
Every Sunday, you’ll find Williams at Hayes Barton Baptist Church. He taught Sunday school for 60 years and is a pillar of the community there. “Wesley is the consummate optimist. He sees the best in everyone. He loves Raleigh and has invested his life here,” says Dr. David Hailey, the church’s pastor. “Wesley has also been our ‘poet laureate’ at HBBC. He has graced us on numerous occasions with his poetry. I would love to have a church full of members like Wesley Williams.”
Two decades into retirement, Williams stays busy having fun with the boys. He’s a longtime member of the Old Raleigh Boys, which meets annually in February at Carolina Country Club. “I wrote the original Old Raleigh Boys creed, and I give some remarks and read the creed at each meeting,” he says. Also at the Carolina Country Club, he meets the 50 other members of the Good Ol’ Boys Club monthly, as he has for the past 38 years.
And then there’s The Wake County Chitlin Club. Perhaps Williams’ most unconventional membership is as director of the group founded by former North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture and then Governor Kerr Scott in 1948. The all-male club meets annually for chitlins (pig innards) at the Toot-N-Tell in Garner. “I’m head of the CIA, which is the Chitlin Intelligence Agency. It’s strictly fun and fellowship,” he says. As the oldest member of the club, Williams was even named most revered member in 2015 by Rufus Edmisten, former North Carolina Secretary of State and Attorney General.
With his many accomplishments and almost a century certainly well-lived, one thing is clear – Williams loves Raleigh, and wants everyone he meets to love it too. His best piece of advice for Raleighites, both old and new? “Be very grateful that you’re here.”