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Benjamin R. Justesen

physician and diplomat, was born in Cumberland County, North Carolina, one of seven children of free black parents Peter Williams, a successful lumberman, and Flora Ann McKay, who taught her son to read at an early age. After the family moved to nearby Harnett County in 1867, his father engaged an educated white widow to tutor his children, in exchange for working on her farm. According to one account, within two years John Williams had “mastered Webster's blue back speller and other books”; by age sixteen, the avid reader was well versed in memoirs, history, and biographies (Powell, p. 210).

As a teenager, John entered the state normal training school at Fayetteville (now Fayetteville State University), where he graduated at the top of his class in 1880 Williams then became a schoolteacher holding teaching positions near his home in Lillington and in a number of ...