Boonville & Columbia
Walter Williams was one of the most influential journalists in American history. Although he lacked a high school education, Williams became an accomplished newspaper editor who founded the world’s first school of journalism at the University of Missouri.
Williams’s innovative Missouri Method, a process through which students learn journalism through a mixture of classroom instruction and hands-on experience, set high standards for journalism education.
This image shows Main Street in Boonville, Missouri, circa 1879. This street would have been a familiar sight to Walter Williams during his time growing up in the small river town.
[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (008554L)]
Marcus Walter Williams was born on July 2, 1864, in Boonville, Missouri. He was the youngest of eight children (two of whom died in infancy) born to Marcus and Mary Jane Littlepage Williams. The couple met in 1837 while traveling in the same wagon train from Virginia to Missouri. After settling in Boonville, Marcus Williams pursued a variety of occupations, achieving modest success. Southern sympathizers during the Civil War
The Civil War was a military conflict that began on April 12, 1861, when Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Several Southern states had seceded from the United States (also known as the Union) and formed the Confederate States of America (also referred to as the Confederacy) out of fear that the United States' newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, would not allow the expansion of slavery into new western states. Battles and skirmishes were fought throughout the country by Union and Confederate forces. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. As other Confederate forces heard the news of Lee's surrender, they surrendered as well and the war was soon over. Over half a million men were killed or wounded in the war. Thousands of former slaves gained their freedom. After the war, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed prohibiting slavery, providing equal protection for all citizens, and barring federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote due to their race, color, or status as a former slave.
, the Williams family escaped the war relatively unscathed.
Having been born eleven years after the second-youngest Williams child, Walter, as he insisted being called, was the center of his family’s attention. His mother and his eldest sister, Susan Ann, taught him to read at an early age. A thin, delicate child with a high, reedy voice, Walter was not fond of athletic pursuits. He spent much of his time reading, studying plants in his parent’s garden, and experimenting in an improvised chemistry lab he and his friends created from items scrounged from his father’s workshop.
Susan Ann thought Walter would benefit from being outdoors and arranged for him to stay one summer at her father-in-law’s farm. Walter later recalled, “I had difficulty making the mules go where I wanted them. In desperation, I urged them on and they bumped into a ravine, taking the plow and me with them. I never liked farming.”
At age thirteen Walter stopped attending school and went to work. Although he had not attended classes, he was granted permission to join former schoolmates as a member of the first class to graduate from Boonville High School in 1879. Unable to attend college due to his family’s limited finances, Walter instead sought full-time employment.