The grave of Robert Bradford Williams at Karori Cemetery, Grave Story #5
Well ahead of America electing its first black American woman and south Asian Vice President, Wellington’s Onslow Borough had an African American mayor.
The extraordinary story behind Robert Bradford Williams and his journey from pre-civil war Georgia in the United States to a highly respected statesman in New Zealand began in 1860.
It was the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president and America was on the verge of civil war.
Williams, who may not have been a slave himself, but whose grandparents or parents could have been, was born in Augusta, Georgia.
He received a private school education and went to Yale University where his singing voice was noticed along with his athletic prowess.
He joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group formed out of Fisk University which had been set up to provide university level education to freed slaves and other young African Americans.
It would take him on a world tour in 1886 that led to New Zealand.
Williams married white Catholic girl Katherine Burke in Tasmania and they made their home in Wellington.
He needed a career and began training to be a lawyer.
The papers of the time became filled with his cases, from prosecuting animal cruelty (he was a supporter of the SPCA), his defence of criminals, employment cases and inquests.
Just as many mentions were made of his singing, with various organisations.
In 1902 he successfully stood for mayor of the Onslow Borough, a post he returned to unopposed many times.
Instead of returning to local politics in 1907, he stood for the general election in 1907 and again in 1914 but was not successful.
He died in Otaki in 1942 and is buried in Karori Cemetery with his beloved wife Katherine. At the time of his death, he had three adult children and several grandchildren. Many of his descendants still live in New Zealand.
His story can be heard https://www.wcl.govt.nz/downloads/janepaulmono.mp3 in the voice of his granddaughter Jane Paul as told to Gábor Tóth, Local & NZ History Specialist for Wellington City Libraries.