In and out

Outside the law in some respects, Charlie Williams nonetheless remained part of the wider community in ways that might baffle people today.

From the 1920s until 1953, Williams held an intriguing niche in the free enterprise system. A railroad porter for years, he also was regarded as the local boss of the mob-controlled illegal numbers racket, which resembled the modern era's state lottery. But police, who said he also ran a moonshine operation during the Prohibition era, never could pin anything on the man who faced down the Ku Klux Klan. A 15-officer raid in 1937 at Williams' home at 1242 First Ave. S revealed $50,000 cash hidden around the house, but no bolita tickets -- the slips people used to record their chosen numbers.

If Williams was all he was said to be, he might have fit the profile of a breed of respected men and women as described by the late Norman Jones Sr., a publicist and political columnist who for a time had a 22nd Street S office. Jones wrote that African-American bootleggers and gamblers, especially during the Great Depression, called political shots and controlled patronage, helped finance businesses and sometimes provided aid to the poor when government assistance failed. An extra-legal source also could provide money in a segregated economy in which traditional resources such as bank loans usually were unavailable.

Williams was widely known among both blacks and whites. Todd Tucker, a sheriff of the era who as a constable helped raid Williams' house, issued Williams an honorary deputy's badge. Authorities knew that Williams often carried a gun, but apparently ignored it. Because blacks could vote in St. Petersburg -- despite periodic white primaries and intimidation tactics -- white political leaders counted on Williams' influence with voters. Many sent wreaths after he was murdered in 1953 while leaving an Ybor City barbershop.

More than 3,000 attended the funeral, where Marie Yopp, the county's first African-American public health nurse, assisted. Gibbs football coach N.L. "Love" Brown and three other Elks lodge brothers sang Williams' favorite hymn, Lead Kindly Light.