John was a free man and a blacksmith living in Louisville in the 1810's, when Thomas & William Lindley (Quakers) were operating a freight wagon service, from Salem to Louisville, and back, when they first encountered each other. At some point John Williams assisted the Lindley brothers with wagon repairs and he quickly gained their trust and friendship.
Sometime before the 1820 Census, the Lindley brothers convinced John to move to their father’s and become the blacksmith of the Blue River Quaker Community.
John lived approximately six years in the home of Samuel Lindley, before purchasing 160 acres of land for himself, from his friend, Thomas Lindley.
During his 40 years living, farming and working as a blacksmith to the Blue River Community John Williams became commonly referred to as Black John Williams to identify him from another John Williams that lived in the area.
John farmed his 160 acre property and sold livestock including hogs and cattle in the Blue River area and became quite wealthy for the times, and being a Negro some jealousy arose against him. Black John lived in Washington County at the height of racial tensions and injustices during and after the Civil War.
Racial strife in Washington County was largely perpetrated by Horace Heffren and Associates of the Knights of the Golden Circle or “Gophers” as they were referred to in the media of the day.
Following the emancipation proclamation, this element felt sure that Negroes would receive citizenship to which they were deeply opposed. Impelled by the heat of the situation, they proposed to destroy Negroes who would not leave the area.
One morning early in December, 1864, the good people of the Blue River community were shocked and saddened when Thomas Rodman (who later became General Rodman, cannon and ballistic inventor and Father of the Rock Island Arsenal), spread the news that he had found the lifeless body of Black John Williams in his own doorway.
Prior to his murder, John Williams, who by every account was an island to himself. He had no known relatives or relations to speak of in the area. He did have the tremendous foresight to plan his last will & testament.
He appointed his trusted friend William Lindley, as the Executor, (who by this time had become a considerable and influential businessman in the Salem Community, owning a Mill, and speculating in real estate.).
Mr. Williams stated in his last testimony that he wished to have his property and possessions sold at auction and all of the proceeds be applied towards the future educational benefit of black Hoosier children.
Black John’s Will was duly recorded in the Washington County Clerk's office at Salem, Indiana. The document was drawn up and signed on January 15, 1857. It was witnessed by E. K. Coffin and Edward B. Hagan.
Though he had completed his duties as executor, William Lindley felt it to be his obligation under the terms of the will not only to act as executor but to hold and administer the fund after the settlement of the estate.
In April, 1869, therefore, he asked the Court of Common Pleas to return to him the money coming from the sale of the property of John Williams in order that he might carry out the trust.
The judge of the court refused the request and then Mr. Lindley appealed to the Supreme Court of Indiana which found for the appellant.
He was required to give bond in the sum of $12,000, after which he was authorized to hold the proceeds of the estate and administer the charitable trust. The Trustee, William Lindley, turned the, fund over to the Indianapolis Asylum for Colored Orphan Children.
It may be said in conclusion, that while Black John Williams did not wield a great influence when alive, the circumstances connected with his untimely death, the way he was guided in disposing of his earthly belongings, and the discovery of how his bequest is still being used today to benefit black Hoosier Children should make a profound impression on us here today and future generations.
1) Since inception of the John Williams Negro Scholarship Fund over 70 years ago the Fund has given $1,100,000 to 1,821 scholars (As of 2023). The fund is managed by the Indianapolis First Friends organization.
2) In June of 2023 the Fund presented 35 scholarships to African American students of $1500 each at a reception at First Friends Meeting.
John is buried in the oldest cemetery of the African-Americans of Washington County. The church and cemetery was abandoned in 1860 when many of the African-Americans moved out of the county, although John Williams was buried there in 1863.
The grounds were fenced by the Washington County Cemetery Commission. A stone was set in 1981 and paid for by the John Williams Negro Scholarship Fund, Miss Lulie Davis and the Washington County Cemetery Commission.