Jeremiah “Jere” Norman Williams

Jeremiah Norman Williams (1829-1915), most often known as “Jere” Williams, was a lawyer, chancellor of the court, Democratic congressman for Alabama’s Third Congressional District, and delegate to the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention.

Williams was born on May 29, 1829, to Judge Stith and Effie Williams near Louisville, Barbour County; he had two brothers. Williams’s father was a Methodist preacher and probate judge of Barbour County. Williams attended the University of South Carolina at Columbia after receiving his early education in the county schools. Following his college studies, he read law with the firm Rice and Belser in Montgomery and attended a term at a law school at Tuskegee, Macon County. Williams was admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1855 and practiced law throughout his life.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Williams enlisted for 12 months in the Clayton Guards, First Alabama Infantry Regiment in January 1861. He was commissioned a major of the regiment in March of that year and mustered out of service in January 1862 because of poor health. He and his regiment were stationed in the Florida panhandle at Fort Barrancas for most of his tenure. After his discharge, Williams returned to practicing law and eventually became involved in politics. 

He married Mary Elizabeth Screws in December 1864. Their union produced five children. Son Sterling Williams followed in his father’s footsteps and began practicing law in 1895. Sterling was elected to the state legislature, served as mayor of Clayton, Barbour County, and held the appointment of judge of the Third Judicial Circuit for many years. Mary Elizabeth Screws was an aunt of William Preston Screws who commanded the 167th Alabama Infantry Regiment in World War I.

The election of 1872 was fraught with illegal voting and charges of corruption in several Alabama counties, including Barbour. Williams ran for and was declared elected to the Alabama House of Representatives along with fellow Democrats Michael Cody and Stanton H. Dent. News reports indicated that each candidate received election certificates from the Secretary of State and initially took their seats and were sworn into office. A trio of Republicans, Thomas J. Clarke (sometimes Clark) and African Americans Samuel Fantroy and Alex E. Williams, contested the election results, arguing that a previously uncounted ballot box from a Republican precinct should be included in the election tally. The Democrats had asked for and received an injunction against including this box in the ballot totals, citing the vague reasoning that proper election procedures had not been observed at that precinct on election day. The judge who provided the injunction eventually dissolved it, paving the way for the votes to be counted, and the three Republican candidates were declared the winners. Following a petition of the deposed Democrats, the House Committee on Privileges and Elections ruled in favor of Clarke, Fantroy, and Alex Williams, and they were awarded the seats in the House.

Williams was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives on the Democratic ticket and served in the Forty-Fourth and Forty-Fifth Congresses. In 1874, he was elected to represent the Second Congressional District, which then consisted of Baldwin, Butler, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Escambia, Montgomery, and Pike Counties. His 1874 election unseated African American Republican James Thomas Rapier, who unsuccessfully contested the election. Rapier argued that hundreds of votes had been cast illegally for Williams and that hundreds more voters, Black and Republican, had been violently forced from the polls when they had attempted to cast their ballots. Williams denied these allegations, and his election stood. (In Barbour County, and specifically in Eufaula where there was a strong pro-slavery element prior to the Civil War, there were incidents of violence between Black and white voters on election day.)

Following redistricting, he was re-elected for a second term in 1876, though to the Third Congressional District consisting of Barbour, Bullock, Coffee, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Lee, and Russell Counties. He won the seat left open by the retirement of Taul Bradford, defeating Republican W. H. Betts.

Williams held office in the U.S. House of Representatives from March 1875 to March 1879, serving on the Committee of Elections and chairing the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office Department during his second term. He opposed the creation of the Electoral College Commission to decide the contested 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden that led to the election of Hayes. He also supported the creation of postal routes in Lowndes, Crenshaw, Butler, Bullock, and Pike Counties in Alabama.  At the conclusion of his second term in office, he returned to practicing law in Clayton. Democrat William J. Samford won the open seat.

Williams was appointed Chancellor of the Southwestern Chancery Division in 1893 and held this position for six years, serving as a judge in equity cases. He returned to practicing law in Barbour County after holding this post. His law partners through the years included John A. Foster, Leonidas Mansfield Lane, and Judge Fern Manly Wood. In 1901, he was elected to represent Barbour County at the State Constitutional Convention in Montgomery. Williams was granted a leave of absence when his grandchild became ill early in the proceedings, but he later returned and would serve on the Education Committee. Williams supported the ratification of the final product of the convention, speaking in favor of the constitution in several public appearances. The constitution would be known for disenfranchising most Black men and some poor white men while eliminating the State Department of Education, creating segregated schools, and cutting education funding.

Following a long illness, Williams died on May 8, 1915, in Clayton and was buried in the Clayton City Cemetery.

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Jeremiah Norman Williams

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Jeremiah Norman Williams