The Erskine-Williams photograph album of unidentified Black portraiture at the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection contains more than 30 portraits, mostly cabinet cards of well-dressed men and women, as well as a few tintypes and cartes de-visite. The only identified photograph is of an infant, Hadyn Erskine Williams. This 1909 portrait was captured by Baltimore’s M. D. Trainor. McClung staff researched the image’s connection to East Tennessee, and it turns out that Hadyn Erskine Williams was the brother of Civil Rights attorney and state senator Avon Nyanza Williams, Jr., a native Knoxvillian. Avon Williams helped litigate desegregation suits for Nashville schools, Anderson County schools, and the University of Tennessee, in addition to defending the students arrested during the Nashville sit-ins.
Hadyn was born on May 13, 1908, in Baltimore to Carrie Coles Williams and Avon Williams, Sr. He worked for TVA and at the Farragut Hotel in downtown Knoxville. At the age of 32, he stood 5’ 10” and sported a mustache. Hadyn died tragically in 1953, the same year his brother Avon, Jr., moved to Nashville.
Their parents, Carrie Coles and Avon Williams, Sr., married in New York City in 1907 and settled in Avon, Sr.’s hometown of Baltimore. According to historian Bobby Lovett, Carrie left Avon in Baltimore in 1916 to return to Knoxville to live with her grandfather and her three children, Hadyn, Ravine, and Velaine. Avon eventually rejoined them, and they had two more children in Knoxville, Lee and Avon, Jr. Carrie eventually died in Knoxville in 1930.
Carrie Coles was born in Knoxville, on September 4, 1883, to Charles E. Coles and Lizzie Erskine. Perhaps because they were unmarried, the Knoxville birth register lists Annie Erskine, Lizzie’s mother, as the mother.
Charles worked as laborer and Lizzie as a cook. After Lizzie’s death of tuberculosis (listed in the death record as phthisis pulmonalis) on January 5, 1899, Carrie went to live with her father in Baltimore, where she met Avon Williams, Sr. Carrie’s mother Lizzie was born in Knoxville around 1868 to Frank and Annie Grimes Erskine. While Annie hailed from South Carolina, Frank was born on a farm in present-day Loudon County. Census records and newspaper articles written at the time of Frank’s death put his birth anywhere from 1842-1857. He worked as a carpet fitter and, for the remaining 60 years of his life, as a shoe shiner, owning his own booth on Central Avenue until his death in 1948. His wife, Annie, sadly died at the county poor asylum in 1925.
Unfortunately, all of the other men and women in the album are unidentified. It is possible that they are related to the Williams family, as Hadyn and Avon’s mother’s family was from the area. However, there are photographs from Morristown, Cincinnati, Nashville, and unidentified places so they could just be assembled together to fill out the album.
Based on the research of Zachary Keith, reference assistant, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library