Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Nebrasker Williams and the African Princess

One of the categories of old postcards that I collect is "walkers."  In the postcard collecting world a "walker" is a person or group who is traveled a long distance by foot, bicycle, dog cart, or other unusual means of transportation.  During the early part of the 20th century,  "long distance travelers," as they might be more accurately described, traveled to promote a political or social cause, advertise an upcoming event such as a state fair, or simply as a performance or a means of survival, raising money by selling postcards or pamphlets about themselves along the way.  

There are a lot of engrossing stories and images of "walkers."  Plennie L. Wingo walked from Abilene, Texas to New York City in 1931 – backwards!  In 1910, Fred Vaillancourt, a former railroad brakeman who had lost both legs in a railroad accident, was traveling the country by dog cart.  There were hundreds of these travelers including many husband and wife teams like Mr. and Mrs. D. H. Woolf, who walked thousands of miles across the United States accompanied by Dolly, the little bay mare who pulled their baggage wagon.

I have seen many cards and photographs of travelers, but recently I came across an old printed blotter that advertised "Mr. and Mrs. Nebrasker Williams and their dog Big Boy."  They billed themselves as "World Champion Walkers and Explorers."   The image of the couple is striking, even if it is poorly printed.  For one thing, they were black, and I have never before seen a photo or card of an African American long distance walker.   

The printed information on the blotter says that they started from Shreveport, Louisiana in 1926, intending to walk around the world.  They were selling the blotters for 15 cents as well as soliciting donations to continue the journey.  Note that while the printed information does not mention religion, Nebrasker is wearing a prominent Christian cross.

A quick search of the Internet revealed very little about Nebrasker Williams and his wife, especially since the search engine kept changing "Nebrasker" to Nebraska."  After some time, I found an article in The California, Eagle, from 1945.  The Eagle was a African American newspaper in Los Angeles from 1879 to 1964.  It was founded by John J. Neimore, who had escaped slavery in Missouri.

The search became a lot more interesting when I saw that the newspaper described Mrs. Williams as an "African princess."   The article in the Eagle was titled, "African Princess and Husband Visit in City of Angels."  According to that article, Mrs. Williams' name was Princess Quenda Buranghingtore Williams, she was from Zulatribi, Cape Town, South Africa, and she and her husband, Nebrasker, were guests at a turkey dinner at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

The article went on to say that, "The princess and her husband have been married for six years.  He has walked 37,000 miles, visited 51 countries, 48 states, and ten islands during which time Mr. Williams has worn out 840 pairs of shoes.  He was the guest of Mahatma Ghandi.  Mrs. Williams, a native African girl, has walked 9,000 miles.  The couple have a collection of 521 scrap books."

Now, to me, that's a good story.   I found no other references to Princess Quenda, and only one more for Nebrasker; on the website "These Americans," which describes itself as a visual narrative from the archives of American history and pop culture, is a single photo titled "Nebrasker Williams The Walking Preacher."  There doesn't seem to be any information on that site as to the origin of the photo.

vb400 PRESS COLLECTION:Nebrasker Williams The Walking Preacher

While we have some answers to the mystery surrounding Nebrasker Williams we don't have all the facts.  

Is the Mrs. Williams portrayed in the blotter advertisement the same person as Princess Quenda?  The 1945 newspaper article says that he and the princess had been married for 9 years, but the blotter information says that the couple pictured on it started walking in 1926, and "... have the history of our lives from 5 years old."   

What was the princess' life like in Africa and in America, and how did it turn out?  What happened to the 521 scrapbooks?  Did they publish a book?  Where did Nebrasker walk next?   I wish I could have asked Nebrasker what it was like to travel this country on foot as a black man in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.   

So, there are still lots of unanswered questions to this narrative, and if you know some of the answers, let us know.  In the meantime, keep on truckin'.

2/1/12  Additional Information:
My sister, Joanne, who must be a better researcher than I am, found an article about "Nebraska" (rather than "Nebrasker") Williams, dated March 1, 1930, in the Afro American, a Baltimore newspaper: 

The article says that Williams passed through Baltimore in 1927, and was again in the city in 1930, along with his wife, a sister, and "Big Boy," his bulldog.  The author of the article seems to be a bit skeptical about the walking claims of Mr. Williams.

In the article, Mr. Williams claimed to have begun his walk in London in 1926, rather than Shreveport, and also claimed Montreal as a starting place.  The newpaper writer says that despite numerous letters about his walk from various US city officials, Mr. Williams failed to show any evidence of having hiked in any foreign countries as he claimed.   

The Afro American does mention some of the problems that the Williams couple had in the south, including being arrested and forced to work on a prison farm for a month.  Mrs. Williams stated that she made a key out of a spoon, and enabled their escape!

So, more questions.  Was Mr. Williams a preacher, a "world champion walker", a con man, or a bit of all three?  Was there really an African Princess wife?  So far, we don't have the whole story, but it's an interesting journey in any case.

"Home is everything you can walk to." ― Jerry Spinelli

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