Granville Williams


We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as   fools. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Man of Substance:  Life and Times of Granville Williams, Jr.

“You are well qualified in the sciences and you are big enough to do the job.  You are hired.” Principal Bill Logan speaking to Granville Williams Jr. in a job interview conducted in Logan’s home in the summer of 1965, which marked the start of a successful five year teaching experience in Prairie City. 

I received a message from Charlotte McClellan, Prairie City High School class of 1966  that her class was having its 50th Reunion on June 25, 2016 at a hotel in Pleasant Hill and that I, as a former teacher and coach at the school  then, was invited.  I accepted, could not reject the invitation, given that Charlotte was a loyal, hard-working guard on two PCHS girls’ basketball teams which I coached. I was also curious to find out about the lives of those ex-students.  I mentioned Granville Williams Jr., who had taught sciences for 5 years at that school from 1965-1970, and that I would locate him in Des Moines and invite him on her behalf which Charlotte thought was a good idea.

A mutual friend in Des Moines gave me Granville’s telephone number and we had a pre-reunion coffee together at Friedrich’s Coffee Shop on 22nd Street in West Des Moines to discuss the reunion program and to clarify time and place of the event.  Recalling some of our experiences as faculty members at Prairie City and paging through a 1966 school yearbook, Granville agreed to attend.

When I first saw him in 1965, he was a tall, wiry young man and I was hoping he was a transfer student, but in a dark suit and tie, I doubted that he was a high school basketball player. He was instead to become the popular and highly respected Life Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics teacher, doing his work in the classroom located in the east high school building of the triangular PC campus configuration and in the lab, not in the old reddish arched roof Quonset hut gymnasium. However, Mr. Williams used to dispatch his biology students to the shower stalls of the gymnasium to scrape samples of whatever organisms were thriving there and then take them back to the lab for analysis. I was relieved that he never reported back the results.

Below is Mr. Granville Williams as a teacher at Prairie City H.S. in 1966.

young granville

At the time, Prairie City High School had about 150 students and although Colfax and Monroe were similar size and the three schools stood in a triangle of close proximity, PC was only 6 miles from Colfax and 12 miles from Monroe – they operated independently.  In 1990, when the Monroe school burned down, consolidation occurred and Prairie City-Monroe High School was formed, but Colfax was not included.

There were no African-American teachers or students in Prairie City or Monroe at the time, probably never had been; however, the Cortez family, which were Mexican-Black American, was prominent in Colfax.  In the 2010 obituary of Jacqueline Cortez who was born in July 4, 1945 to Paul and Addie Cortez in Florala, Alabama, but was raised in Colfax and lived her adult life in Des Moines. This writer worked a summer job in 1965 on a Rock Island Railroad extra gang on a crew which included Paul Cortez, the father, who had a large family – all raised in Colfax.  He was a full time employee on the Colfax section.

Granville’s first year at Prairie City was only 11 years after Justice Earl Warren’s U.S. Supreme Court had voted 9-0 to end state school segregation overruling the “separate but equal” statue established in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896.  The Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 put in place federal law which eventually led to integrated schools and was considered a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement.

However, the wording in the Brown decision was vague in regard to a time table for America’s schools and only recommended to end segregation “with all deliberate speed.”  Granville recalls vividly his experiences in “Sit-Ins” in Texas while at Bishop College in attempts by students to expedite integration in public places and indicated he had been fire hosed, knocked around, threatened and verbally abused during the protests by locals bent on resisting integration. He also mentioned the intimidating presence of Texas Rangers called in to quell the protests.

Granville relates that while a 19 year old student at Bishop College in 1959, he and some friends in his dormitory decided to go to a midnight movie in the downtown of Marshall, Texas. As the small group was walking that night, one of them suggested that they foot race to the theatre to buy tickets. Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, they let Granville win so he was the first in line of the group to purchase his ticket.  He was told at the ticket window that yes he could buy a ticket, but no he could not sit on the main floor of the theatre, that he was to use a “colored section” in the balcony. His friends had intentionally allowed him to win the race so that he got the word first hand on the segregated seating – he was a freshman, naïve about segregation in East Texas and his classmates wanted to “educate” him.

On another occasion, while playing basketball in the college gym one afternoon, his dark, horn-rimmed glasses flew to the floor due to some incidental contact during the course of the activity and were broken.  He went to a local optometrist to purchase a new pair and was required to receive service and sit in a special “colored section” of the waiting room.  Although he had experienced discrimination from time to time in Mason City, Iowa, he was taken back by totally segregated businesses of Marshall, Texas.  Yes, it definitely got his attention.

Judge Luther T. Glanton, who was the commencement speaker for the PCHS class of 1966, was a pioneer in civil rights progress in Iowa.  He was the first federal district judge of his race to be appointed to a judgeship in the state. Judge Glanton had been a football star in segregated Murfreesboro, Tennessee high school and graduated from what was known as a Negro College, Tennessee State University, in Nashville. Graduating from Drake Law School in 1942, Glanton was not allowed to stay in the college dormitories nor eat in the student cafeteria, but he endured and succeeded.

After graduation from Drake, he became a U.S. Army intelligence officer serving in WWII, then in 1947 was appointed as one of the judges to preside at the Nurenberg War Trials.  Like Judge Glanton, Granville Williams grew up in a segregated America and had a first-hand view of what it was like then, what happened, and what it is like now.  Also both of these men shared the stage in Prairie City, Iowa – the Judge briefly for an evening in the old gymnasium as a graduation speaker and Mr. Williams for five years in a classroom as a science teacher.

Although of a previous era yet with a link to the subject of this piece, George Washington Carver, the eminent educator and world famous plant biologist, shared some commonalities with both Granville Williams and Judge Luther Glanton and the three were contemporaries – Carver (1864-1943), Glanton (1910-1991) and Williams (1940- current) This trio of pioneers, each in his own right, journeyed successfully with perseverance and education as their vehicles for progress through a segregated landscape and also all three graduated from universities in Iowa  – Judge Glanton (1942) and Granville Williams (1965) from Drake and George Washington Carver (1894) from Iowa State.

Carver was born into slavery in 1864 in Diamond Grove, Missouri in a family of 11 siblings. After slavery was abolished, thus changing his name from “Carver’s George” to George Carver, he received encouragement and instruction from his former masters, the Carvers,  to learn to read and write although not allowed to attend the public school in Diamond Grove. He did attend a school for black children in Neosho, Missouri but received his high school diploma at the Minneapolis, Kansas High School.

In 1890 he studied music and art at Simpson College and from there he became Iowa State Agricultural College’s first black student in 1891 and after receiving both a B.S. and M.S. was named ISU’s first African-American faculty member with plant pathology his specialty.  Booker T. Washington, principal at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, recruited Carver from Iowa State in 1896 and he was to remain at that school as a plant biologist and professor for 47 years. In order to lure him away from Iowa State, Carver received special compensation in terms of an elevated faculty salary and two private rooms on campus – other faculty members reportedly shared a room. Carver’s work was of both an academic and practical nature as he developed new plants used for food and also found ways to sustain previously productive plant life for food products. He was born in c. 1864 and died in 1943.

Tuskegee Institute

Tuskegee Intitute

George Washington Carver (front row, center) poses with other faculty at Tuskegee Institute in this c. 1902 photo by Francis Benjamin Johnson.

The reunion for the class of 1966 went well with 17 class members present from the original 36 in the graduating class, so with wives, husbands and guests there were 35 in attendance.  Granville was seated at a table with Linda Logan Currans, oldest daughter of Bill Logan, the administrator who extended Mr. Williams his first teaching contract offer.  Also at the table was John Jennings, a popular class member who showed up the next day at the art exhibition at the State Fair Grounds at the invitation to all class members by Granville, who is on the Board of Directors of Grotesques in Iowa and Abroad.

Stone carvings are known as “grotesques” with attention to the character “The Green Man” with foliage as part of the image.  John Jennings recognized and then greeted Granville in the role of the Green Man, a spotlight figure of the exhibit.  (Check it out online or in a reference book:  Gargoyles or Gargoyles of Des Moines. . .)

I have done some writing in retirement – books on my home town of Grinnell and alma mater of Cornell College, in addition to maintaining an active blog site. Back in personal contact due to the reunion, I was curious about Granville’s life and wanted to learn more from him and proposed that we do a biographical sketch with myself doing the writing and him providing the facts. We have been meeting since the June 25 reunion at Friedrich’s Coffee Shop on Thursdays at 12.30 pm to accomplish this project.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa on April 21, 1940, to Granville Williams Sr. and Willie Cabil Williams, the oldest of 8 children, the family moved to Mason City when Granville Jr. was in 4th grade.  He was one of two minority students in his class at the time, the other called “Ozzy” as Granville recalls.  The oldest of the 8 Williams children, the Prairie City science teacher to be, discovered in the 10th grade while peering through a microscope at worms and insects that biology fascinated him.  He never lost sight of that original interest and eventually was to establish a teaching career in the subjects of Life Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, with Biology his favorite.

The Reverend Granville Williams Sr. presided as father over his large family and also as minister of the congregation at St. John’s Baptist Church in Mason City.  His oldest child reports that he spent a lot of time at the church with regular services, Sunday school, choir practice, Bible study, etc.  In fact that rigorous schedule in his youth satisfied his curiosity as he now seeks spiritual support outside of the structure of formal religion.  Calling his father “old school authoritarian”, Granville sees himself more like his mother who was lower key with a sense of humor.

His 7 siblings include Ronald Dean, who left home at 17 and joined the U.S. Army, living his life in California and passing away in 2013; Gladys Bernice, a widow living in Des Moines; Marvin LeRoy, an over-the-road truck driver who lives in Missouri before his death; Stanley Lee, an oil field worker in the Gulf of Mexico; Genevieve, living in Denver; Charles Dewey, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a minister and social worker with a B.S. from Bishop College and an M.S. from Duke University; and Patricia, the youngest living in Little Rock, Arkansas.  (Below are parents of Granville Williams, Jr., Willie Cabil and the Reverend Granville Williams, Sr.)

granville parents

Having worked jobs after school and evenings washing windows and in general maintenance with two different retail stores, Granville graduated from Mason City High School in 1958 in a class of around 300 with 3 African-American students among them.  While a high school student in Mason City, Granville remembers a disconcerting moment when one day he was standing on a street near the school talking to a white girl when suddenly a man whipped his truck over and shouted racial epithets including threats – a bad memory of Mason City, Iowa.

After high school graduation in 1958, he then matriculated to Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, a school with a predominantly black student body.

Granville recalls a faculty member from India during his time at Bishop named Dr. Lickhite, (pronounced lick–hee-tay), while originally the school’s faculty members and administration were mainly of European-American origin. The school was named for Nathan Bishop and founded by Nathan Bishop, superintendent of the Providence, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts school systems and the Baptist Home Mission Society in 1881 in Marshall and in 1961 the campus was moved to Dallas.

The school was closed in 1988 due to dwindling enrollment in all black colleges as educational opportunities had become available for African American students at other U.S. colleges and universities, somewhat ironic in that schools like Bishop had been formed to accommodate students of color because of segregation, yet integration meant closure to some.

Bishop was one of the first well-known private Negro Colleges in the United States, others include Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Morehouse College in Atlanta; Paul Quinn College in Dallas and Stilman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  In addition to these private schools, there are a number of predominantly black state universities still operating such as Alabama State, Mississippi Valley State, Tennessee State and a number of others.

Granville Jr. met his wife, JoAnn, at Bishop and the couple moved back to Des Moines in 1960 after two years as students at the Baptist school.  He then worked nights for four years and nine months at Veterans Hospital as a nursing assistant while attending Drake University week days and Saturdays.

His time was well spent at Vets Hospital with daily work with meds in nursing, a field which was consistent with his interest in the sciences. He even occasionally had the unique experience of assisting with autopsies which gave him first- hand knowledge of some facets of human anatomy.

Graduating from Drake with a degree in Biology in the School of Education in the summer of 1965, he answered an advertisement in the Des Moines Register for a teaching position in Prairie City.   He was interviewed and offered a contract by Principal William H. Logan.  Granville taught all the sciences at PCHS from 1965-1970, being named Teacher of the Year on one occasion and also heading the Prairie City School District Teachers Association.

Granville was the first and only African-American teacher in the Prairie City school system. He considers the 5 years commuting from Des Moines to his science classroom as memorable and valuable experience. He said that he had good students, most with college plans.  His pioneering, however, was not without obstacles and concerns.

A student informed Granville that his father said that men in white sheets were going to come after him.  Also, Bill Logan, who hired him, received threatening calls at his home.  Nothing came of the threats and Williams says that “overall, it went pretty smoothly.”

Granville received an M.S. degree in 1970 from Northeast Missouri State in the summers while teaching at Prairie City. He and Walter Fortney, PCHS football coach and industrial arts teacher, shared a dorm room at NEMSU one summer.  Late one evening they decided to go to a tavern close to the campus to have a beer.  Granville was refused service.  Fortney and other summer students at the tavern witnessed the action of the bartender and walked out with Granville, never to return. “I appreciated their support”, Granville commented.

In 1970 he accepted a position with the Des Moines School System, teaching there until his retirement in 2004.   He first held positions at Weeks and Kurtz Schools, then Brody followed by 20 years at North High School – all of his teaching positions were in the sciences, finally working only in chemistry the last years of his career at North.

While teaching in Des Moines, he and JoAnn received a huge jolt in their lives when younger son, Barry, drowned at the Big Creek levy while Granville was fishing.   Young Barry was walking along the levy and apparently slipped and fell into some deep water.  Another fisherman in a boat yelled, but it was too late to catch sight of the youngster. The police were called and advised Granville to return home to console his wife and they took responsibility for finding the body.  JoAnn passed away in 2005.

Photo of JoAnn Williams

JoAnn Williams

Another family tragedy occurred in Denver when Granville Sr. and wife Willie Cabil were returning in a car from church with grand children in the back seat.  They pulled up to the home of their 7th child, Genevieve, who was waiting on the front porch. She suddenly rushed toward the car and fired a pistol shot which killed her father and attempted to shoot her mother also, but did not succeed. It was believed that Genevieve had been influenced unfavorably by an unstable boyfriend who convinced her that Granville Sr. had demonic leanings.  It is believed that she was arrested, tried and passed time in a psychiatric hospital in regard to the shooting charges. As far as Granville knows, she is no longer incarcerated.

In addition to his work on the Board of Directors of Gargoyles and Grotesques of Des Moines, Mr. Williams also serves on the Board of Directors of the Ray Society for Lifetime Learning supported by Drake University. The Ray Society, named for long time Iowa Governor Robert Ray, offers non-credit courses and educational opportunities for adult students in Central Iowa with the aim to provide stimulating discussions, cultural understanding and intellectual investigation. (Below Granville and Friend, 2016)

granville and friend

Also, he is a long-time member and consistent contributor to Al-Anon in Des Moines, the powerful international program for those who have friends and family with chemical dependency issues. Granville and his son, Timothy, now in his fifties, live together in West Des Moines and Mariah, Tim’s daughter, is employed at a West Des Moines bank. Granville is a busy man with his volunteer organizations and also enjoys friends and activities at the WDM Senior Center in Valley Junction.

Granville Williams, Jr. stated that he has always done his best in his teaching assignments as well as to quietly represent his race through personal example in a positive manner.  Those who know him agree that he has fully succeeded in both of those areas.

Comments from PCHS:

“Okay, I admit I was far from your best student.  The lessons you taught in biology, chemistry and physics were at times lost on me.  Your classes were always challenging and fun, though.

 The most important lesson you gave me had nothing to do with science.  You gave me the gift of color blindness.  I learned from you the commonality of our shared humanity.  For that I am eternally grateful.  By the way, you are the toughest – and best – teacher I ever had! 

Thanks Mr. Williams.”     (Bill Bone, PCHS ‘69)


Thanks for this great blog about my teacher and friend, Mr. Williams. He is one of the reasons 
I decided to make teaching my career. He not only taught science but also was sponsor for several after school clubs including future teachers of which I was a member.
I reconnected with Mr. Williams as fellow colleague in a collaborative education class we took at our area education agency. He also taught classes at our AEA on use of humor in the classroom. It was a favorite of the teachers and always filled up fast so, consequently, I was never able to take his class. He is truly a master teacher and encourager and a wonderful person.
You will be happy to know, as my former PE teacher, I make it to exercise classes at least three times a week.

Mary Bone Elrod


I did not have Mr. Williams as a teacher, but I remember him coming to the house in Prairie City for a job interview (summer 1965).  He was a young, pleasant black man that Dad said was the most qualified of the applicants for the Science job at the PC school and was going to recommend him to be hired.  He was as I understand a fine teacher and stayed there in PC for 5 years.   (Linda Logan Currans {PCHS ‘66)


I was not perhaps the greatest science student, for sure, but I remember he was always very easy-going and congenial. Back in the 60s, with him as the only black teacher in a small town, I don’t remember any kind of prejudice shown him at all. Don’t remember too much about his classes, except one day we got to play with mercury. That was pretty cool, don’t know if that would happen today. (John Jennings PCHS ‘66)


I roomed with Granville in the dorm in summer school at Kirksville in 1969.  Easy guy to be around and we had some good times.  The bar tender refusing service one night caught us both off guard, but he handled it and got some support from other teachers from summer classes in the joint at the time. Good man, Williams, imagine he’ll always remember PC and Kirksville also.  (Walt Fortney in a conversation at his home in Anamosa about 10 years after – in 1980 –  he passed away in 2000.)


With the passage of time, friends and colleagues from the past become more and more valuable. Our time at Prairie City coincided and it has been a revelation to catch up with and interact with Granville Williams again.   We have had some good moments, some humorous, in working together on this article on Granville’s extraordinary personal and professional experiences.   (Dave Adkins  Des Moines)

Article written by Dave Adkins     July 15, 2016

See more comments by readers below:





  1. Nick Nurse


    I always enjoy reading all your posts but this one is especially enjoyable. Thank you for taking the time to publish these. It is an interesting and unique look at small town Iowa and always gives me some moments of reflective thought. Obviously, I do not know Mr. Williams or have even heard of him, but your account of him here draws immediate respect from me of a man doing a remarkable job and conducting himself with diligence and pride, without being prideful.

    Nick Nurse
    Asst. Coach
    Toronto Raptors
    Carroll, Iowa
    Kuemper High School Class of 1985
    University of Northern Iowa Class of 1990

    1. Mary (Bone) Elrod

      Mr. Adkins,
      Thanks for this great blog about my teacher and friend, Mr. Williams. He is one of the reasons I decided to make teaching my career. He not only taught science but also was sponsor for several after school clubs including future teachers of which I was a member.
      I reconnected with Mr. Williams as fellow colleague in a collaborative education class we took at our area education agency. He also taught classes at our AEA on use of humor in the classroom. It was a favorite of the teachers and always filled up fast so, consequently, I was never able to take his class. He is truly a master teacher teacher and encourager and a wonderful person.
      You will be happy to know, as my former PE teacher, I make it to exercise classes at least three times a week.


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