Barry Saunders

From age 17 to 95, G. Wesley Williams has helped Raleigh grow

G. Wesley Williams is justifiably proud of his seven decades working with myriad merchants organizations and civic groups in Raleigh. Among other things, he organized the city’s Christmas parades for 46 years and, he’ll have you know, led the effort to build its first downtown parking garage.

“We chartered an airplane and took a group of men to Bluefield, W. Va., where they had carved out the foothill of a mountain and put in a parking building,” he said. “When we came back, we got the parking buildings going in downtown Raleigh.”

Whew. If you think parking downtown is bad now, just imagine how much worse it would be without the input from Williams and the others.

When Williams, 95, says “I remember Raleigh when it was a cow pasture,” he’s being only slightly hyperbolic.

“I’m proud of the city’s growth,” he told me recently. “I’ve seen it grow from a quiet, capital town that survived on the state government and agriculture to a metropolitan and cosmopolitan area. I’m glad I played a part.”

He’s also proud of his many years as head of the CIA.

Say what?

Naw, not the government agency many think is cladestinely listening in on citizens’ phone calls and spying on us with drones.

The CIA which Williams heads is the Chitlin Intelligence Agency, part of the Wake County Chitlin’ Club. “If anybody gets too much culture – ballets, operas and so on – the high tribunal has to deal with them,” he said. Williams is head of that tribunal.

“It was started by Kerr Scott when he was commisioner of agriculture, and I haven’t missed one in 60 years,” Willaims said.

He also said they serve two kinds of chitlin and invited me to the next meeting as his guest.

I may go, but there ain’t but one kind of chitlin I’m eating.

Williams was born on a farm not far from Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, near the intersection of Sunnybrook and Rock Quarry roads. They lived on the farm until he was 12.

“That was during the Great Depression. My parents lost the farm. Banks were foreclosing left and right. I think they said they owed $2,500 and couldn’t pay it, so the bank took it. We had 85 beautiful acres. The saddest day of my life,” Williams said, shaking his head and choking up at the memory even after 83 years, “was when all of the furniture we had was packed up on a two-horse wagon and seeing my mother and father cry because we had to leave.”

The family moved to Hargett Street. His father died three years later. He was 55.

“I had to try to take his place,” he said. Williams founded the Young Businessmen’s Club when he was 17. It was for young men who, like he, couldn’t afford to go to college but wanted a business career.

“I’m addicted to my computer,” Williams confessed as we sat in his trophy room, walls covered by plaques, honors and certificates of appreciation. “I stay in touch with a lot of people around the world by emails. I’m always emailing.” He’s not kidding: I’ve received several from him since I began talking to him. “I’m a great believer in the old adage, ‘Use it or lose it.’ The more I can use my brain, the less chance I will have of having Alzheimer’s dementia. I like to stay just as active as I can.”

He negotiates the stairs in his home of 50 years with surprising alacrity, despite using a cane.

Other than heading the CIA, Williams seems proudest of his efforts, with John Winters Sr., a developer, state representative and Raleigh’s first black city councilman, to desegregate Raleigh’s restaurants in 1963.

“John and I were friends, and one Sunday night, we called up Terry Sanford over at the governor’s mansion and told him we wanted to come talk to him. He was sitting there with his shoes off and invited us to do the same. We had been working to get all of the restaurants to open up to everybody. The S&W Cafeteria was a holdout. A lot of the restaurants said ‘If S&W goes along, we will, too.’ We said ‘Governor, would you please call Frank Sherrill – the ‘S’ in S&W – and ask him if he would consider opening up to everybody?’”

Sherrill didn’t accede immediately, but eventually, Williams said, he “told me to send him a telegram that he should send to his employees and the media. That’s a story that’s never been publicized.”

Like that one, most of the changes Williams has seen are good ones, he said, but he said he fears the city’s infrastructure is not keeping up with its growth.

Despite his deep ties to business, Williams is no fan of unrestrained, haphazard growth. Asked what he’d like to see happen over the next 50 years, he said “I’d like to see Raleigh grow only as fast as we are able to provide for the growth... It’s hard for me to realize that the city that I love and worked for for so long has become the city that it is today.”