From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Williams, James Estel, Sr.

(born: September 15, 1921  -  died: February 1983) 

James E. Williams, Sr. was the first African American mayor of East St. Louis, Illinois, from 1971-1975. He had defeated Virgil Calvert and replaced the previous mayor, Alvin G. Fields. At the time, the city of East St. Louis was 70% African American. The unemployment rate was 17%. The city had many economic and development challenges. There was a high degree of crime. Williams was not delusional about the dire state of the city. 

He had started his journey to East St. Louis from Kentucky. James E. Williams, Sr. was born and raised in Maysville, KY. He left to earn his bachelor's degree from Wilberforce University and his master's degree from Iowa State University. Williams returned to Kentucky and taught chemistry at Lincoln Institute. He left the school and served in the U.S. Army. Williams moved to Granite City, IL, where he was a civilian staff assistant at the U.S. Army Depot.

While working at the Army Depot, Williams earned his law degree from St. Louis University School of Law in 1962. He left the Army Depot to work at the St. Claire County Legal Aid Society. He would become the director of the Legal Aid Society and held that job until he started campaigning to become Mayor of East St. Louis. He ran as an independent.

After serving one term as mayor, Williams was defeated by William E. Mason in his bid for re-election in 1975. He was next elected to the East St. Louis School Board and became president of the board in 1976. He resigned from the school board in 1978. Williams was unsuccessful in his bid to become city clerk in 1979.

Williams continued as a lawyer in East St. Louis. He was a member of the American Bar Association, the Illinois Bar Association, the NAACP, and Kappa Alpha Psi. He was a WWII veteran of the U.S. Army.

James E. Williams, Sr. died in 1983. He was the son of Elizabeth Smith and Courtney Williams. He was the husband of Lillian Harrison Williams and the couple had five children. 

For more see Donald Berns, "Maysville native, former Lincoln Ridge teacher, Black new mayor of East St. Louis has tough job in a tough town," Sunday Herald-Leader, 06/06/1971, p.17; "James E. Williams Sr. funeral set Saturday," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 02/15/1983, p.13; Obituaries: James E. Williams Sr.; E. St. Louis ex-mayor," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 02/14/1983, p.25.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Mason County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Shelby County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Maysville, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Item Relations

Cited in this Entry

NKAA Entry: Lincoln Institute (Lincoln Ridge, KY)
NKAA Source: Sunday herald-leader (newspaper)
NKAA Source: St. Louis post-dispatch (newspaper)

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Williams, James Estel, Sr.,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 14, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-09-22 16:01:47