Joseph Williams was born in Saint Augustine, Florida, on March 4, 1895. He may have had no recollection of his mother or father as before the war, he was living with his uncle in Saint Augustine. He worked as a cook before he joined the military.1
In 1917, three years after World War I began in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson signed a Congressional declaration of war on Germany. The government quickly realized they needed to muster a larger army to send to Europe. On May 17, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. The act required all male citizens between the ages of twenty-one and thirty to register for the draft. Williams registered for the draft on May 29, 1917. He was drafted into the Army on June 20, 1918. As seen here on his draft card, Williams was originally supposed to be inducted at the St. Johns County local board in Saint Augustine, Florida. However, he was transferred to the Tompkins County local board in Ithaca, New York, for induction before being sent to Camp Dix in New Jersey, for training.2
About thirteen percent of the United States Army in World War I was African American. However, most African Americans were in support units. The Southern states in particular were fearful of black men learning how to shoot rifles, so they were often times relegated to Quartermaster and Engineer units. Yet, Private Joseph Williams served as a part of Company M, 807th Pioneer Infantry. The 807th Pioneer Infantry Regiment was formed at Camp Dix in late July of 1918. They were sent overseas in September and took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. While Pioneer Infantry regiments served in support roles such as constructing and repairing bridges and railroads, they often served on the front lines as these units experienced direct action with the enemy.3
During his time in the Army, Williams served overseas in France from September 4, 1918 to July 3, 1919.4 After the war, he departed France on the USS Orizaba alongside other members of the 807th Pioneer Infantry Regiment. The regiment returned to Camp Dix and was disbanded. Williams received an honorable discharge on July 9, 1919.5
After the war, Joseph returned home to Saint Augustine. In 1923, he married Pauline Keating. As of 1927, he found work again as a cook at the Monson Hotel in Saint Augustine. The Monson Hotel was a prominent hotel located on Bay Street in Saint Augustine. It would later be replace by the Monson Motor Lodge, which became a crucial location in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Williams never lived to see the Civil Rights movement, he died on December 23, 1942 and was interred on December 30, 1942, as pictured here, in the Saint Augustine National Cemetery. He is buried in Section D, Grave 18.6
1 “U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com: accessed July 24, 2018), entry for Joseph Williams; “U.S. Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939,” database, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com: accessed July 24, 2018), entry for Joseph Williams.
2 Jennifer D. Keene, World War I: The American Soldier Experience (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 1; “Records of the Selective Service System (World War I),” National Archives, accessed July 24, 2018,https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/163.html#163.4; “U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” Ancestry.com, Joseph Williams. ”U.S. Lists of Men Ordered to Report to Local Board for Military Duty, 1917-1918,” database, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com: accessed July 24, 2018), entry for Joseph Williams.
3 Keene, World War I, 93-95; “Joseph Williams, Floridamemory.com, Joseph Williams; Derrel B. Depasse, Traveling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum (New York/Jackson, MS: Museum of American Folk Art/University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 11; “Return of the 807th Pioneer Regiment,” UMassAmherst, accessed July 26, 2018, http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums312-b219-i282/#page/1/mode/1up; Eric Page, “Herbert Young, Who Fought In World War I, Dies at 112,” The New York Times, April 28, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/28/nyregion/herbert-young-who-fought-in-world-war-i-dies-at-112.html.
5 “Joseph Williams,” Floridamemory.com, Joseph Williams; “U.S. Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists,” Ancestry.com, Joseph Williams; Page, “Herbert Young, Who Fought In World War I”.
6 “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995,” database, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com: accessed July 24, 2018), entry for Joseph Williams; NPR Staff, “Remembering A Civil Rights Swim-In: ‘It Was A Milestone,” National Public Radio, accessed July 30, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2014/06/13/321380585/remembering-a-civil-rights-swim-in-it-was-a-milestone; “U.S. National Cemetery Interment Control Forms, 1928-1962,” database, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed July 24, 2018), entry for Joseph Williams.
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