On June 29, 1947, a bomb went off at the residence at 361 Ashby St., in Atlanta, Ga. One report said that the bomb caused “enormous” damage, while another stated that it blew out a stairway at the residence. There were no reports that an arrest was ever made, but the motive was pretty clear. The house was owned by Vinicius “Nish” Williams, an Atlanta native and a 12-year veteran of the Negro Leagues. He and his wife had bought a house in the Ashby-Sells area of Atlanta, which was a largely white neighborhood. And you couldn’t do that in Atlanta in 1947 without facing consequences.
Today in Atlanta, when uptight people want to keep their neighborhoods white, they do things like vote against expanding mass transit, claiming that it might bring the “wrong element” into North Fulton County. Seventy-something years ago, hate groups like the Columbians and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as unaffiliated racists, used pipe bombs and other explosives to push back against the integration of Atlanta neighborhoods. The bombing on Ashby Street was one of six such attacks to take place in the Ashby-Sells neighborhood in the first half of 1947 alone.
(Editor’s note: Archive Atlanta is an excellent podcast detailing Atlanta history. It is hosted by Victoria Lemos, who inspired this article and supplied me with most of the materials used in the writing of it. One of her recent podcasts dealt with just a few of the bombings that took place in Atlanta in the 1930s and ’40s. I’m grateful to her help, and I highly recommend her podcast to any history lovers. It has definitely given me a new appreciation for the city in which I live.)
Nish Williams was born in Atlanta on February 29, 1904. He was a standout Morehouse College athlete and was brought into the Negro Leagues by Thomas Wilson, founder of the Nashville/Baltimore Elite Giants and a respected executive of both the Negro National and American Leagues. Williams was primarily a catcher, though he played pretty much everywhere on the field in his career. His Baseball Reference page and Seamheads page, as is the case with most Negro Leagues players, is skimpy on stats. From what we can tell, Williams was a pretty steady hitter in the .270s who occasionally had some brilliant seasons where he hit over or close to .300. He started his career with the Nashville Elite Giants in 1928 and played until 1939, when he briefly joined the Indianapolis ABCs.
A profile in the Atlanta Daily World on April 18, 1939, described him as follows: “Nish weighs in at 198 pounds and is six feet tall. He throws and bats righthanded with the usual Elite Giants propensity for hitting fast ball pitching. Williams always found “Satchel” Paige a cousin and could swat his fireball when no one else could.
“His biggest thrill was that homer he smashed at Refractory Oval in Harlem in a game where all-star colored performers were in there with all-star white major leaguers. Another big moment in Williams’ life happened in 1935 at Yankee Stadium where he dented big league pitchers for a single, double, triple and a walk in four appearances to drive home six tallies.”
Williams came home to Atlanta in 1938 when he agreed to be a player-manager for the Atlanta Black Crackers. By then, Williams had lost a step or two, though he did top .300 as a part-time catcher. The stars of the team were outfielder Donald Reeves and first baseman Red Moore, both of whom flirted with .400. The team was a disappointment at the start of the season, and the Daily World reported at one point that Williams was fired as manager for insubordination. The paper apparently got it wrong, because, the World reported just days later that Williams came back from a scouting trip to New York City with several new players. The Black Crackers roared back to life to become second half champions of the Negro American League, according to Seamheads.
Williams had several other stints as an Atlanta manager after his playing days were over. By May of 1947, Major League Baseball had been integrated by Jackie Robinson, and Williams had retired to Atlanta with his wife and stepson, enjoying a career as a restaurateur. The Daily World, the oldest Black newspaper in Georgia, published considerable more details about the house bombing than its white counterpart, the Atlanta Constitution, which buried the story on page 16 of the June 30 edition — by the obituaries.
The Williamses had owned the house for 18 months but were not living there at the time of the explosion. The Constitution likely bungled the details when it reported that the owner-occupant of the Ashby Street house was a white man — possibly he was a tenant, with the Williams family as landlords. The paper seemed to point the blame at the victims, though. “… Negroes are rapidly acquiring homes in the neighborhood. Police said the housing situation was behind the bombings some months ago.”
The Constitution also noted that Detectives J.E. Nelms and B.G. Holland were investigating the bombing. If they really wanted to solve the case, they probably should have just asked the residents. “There appears to be no doubt in the minds of the Negroes who live in the area as to the identity of the party instigating the terrorism,” wrote World reporter C. Lamar Weaver. “This party is said to have been seen near the scene of the explosions on all occasions just prior to the explosions. It is believed that the officers are aware of his identity, but fail to take any corrective measures.”
The explosion was just one of a string of frightening incidents that the Williams family had experienced with 361 Ashby St. The day after the explosion, Helen Williams received two threats, including one that promised to target the family where they lived. Before the bombing, they had sent a black plumber to work at the house, and he was run out of the neighborhood at gunpoint by a group of white men.
By November of 1947, an ad in the Atlanta Constitution touted three apartments being remodeled at 361 Ashby St. “Applicants must be veterans and have good jobs,” the ad stated, along with the phrase “white only.”
Nish Williams came along too early for the integration of baseball. For the last three decades of his life, he coached semipro teams in addition to his restaurant job. His contributions to baseball, though, are pretty significant. He taught Roy Campanella how to catch and gave some pitching tips to Don Newcombe. He was so well-known in Atlanta in his later years that the Braves broke an unwritten baseball rule when they invited him to an Old-Timers game, despite the fact that he never reached the majors. Nish Williams took the field with his major-league contemporaries shortly before he died of cancer on September 2, 1968.
There’s one other thing, too. When Nish and Helen Williams married in 1961, he got a 6-year-old stepson named Donn Clendenon. Clendenon’s father, a brilliant educator, died of leukemia when the boy was six months old, so Williams was the only father figure he ever really knew. Williams helped foster a love of athletics and competition in his stepson and, according to Clendenon’s SABR bio, helped young Donn get over his fear of being hit by a ball through some rather unconventional means. He had a wooden cage assembled that prevented Donn from bailing out of the batter’s box, then Satchel Paige and Sad Sam Jones threw pitches that the kid had to identify as they crossed the plate. It worked fine with Paige and his master control. The results were a little more of a mixed bag with Jones — click the above link for the details.
Nish Williams lived long enough to see his stepson reach the major leagues — something he was never allowed to do himself. Unfortunately, he died a year before Clendenon joined one of the most celebrated teams in baseball history — the 1969 Miracle Mets. After joining the team mid-season after a trade with the Expos, he added a dose of power to the Mets lineup. He also was the MVP of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, hitting 3 home runs in the 4-game series.
Clendenon, an executive with Scripto Inc. during his playing days, found a way to honor Nish Williams. He opened a fancy club in Atlanta called Clendenons, and the bar on the ground floor was named the Nish Brew Shop. It was the completion of a promise that he had made to the only father he ever knew.
“You could describe it as a late dream come true for him,” Clendenon said when the club opened in July of 1969. “He had this place, a flourishing one way back when. But it had been renovated and renovated, and he wanted to see it fixed up fine… so it would have a comfortable atmosphere, good food, live entertainment… a place where sports followers and sportsmen would want to gather. So I tore it down, built it from the ground up. We want athletes of all sports to come, all creeds, all colors. If it grows we hope to bring in big name entertainers. Anyway, I wanted to keep my promise to Nish. It’s how he’d want it.”