WILLS, J. WALTER, SR. (3 June 1874-23 Apr. 1971), founder and director of the state's largest black-owned funeral business, HOUSE OF WILLS, was born to Silas and Anna (Wilson) Wills and educated in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He graduated from Antioch College, and came to Cleveland in 1899, working as a streetcar conductor and insurance salesman while attending law school at night. In 1904 he became a partner with William W. Gee in the Gee & Wills Funeral Co. When the partnership dissolved in 1907, Wills formed the J. W. Wills & Sons Co. An ardent believer that economic self-help was the key to black progress, Wills helped organize the city's first black business organization in 1905, the Cleveland Board of Trade. In 1908, an organization that grew out of the board, the CLEVELAND ASSOC. OF COLORED MEN, affiliated with Booker T. Washington's Natl. Business League. Wills broke with more traditional integrationists to advocate black solidarity, trying to find a way to end racial discrimination and improve the lives of AFRICAN AMERICANS. Among numerous organizational activities, he was a founder of the local branch of the NAACP, the Negro Welfare Assoc. (URBAN LEAGUE OF CLEVELAND affiliate), and the PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOC. Wills was often called upon to aid the needy as the city's black population expanded, and also donated to MT. ZION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, of which he was a member. Wills was a conductor and trainer of choral groups. In 1969, the Community Ctr. at the King-Kennedy Apts. in the Central area was named in his honor.
Wills was married twice. His first marriage on 29 Mar. 1900 was to Alberta L. Gamblee; they had a son, J. Walter, Jr. Divorced in 1915, Wills' second marriage was to Blanche Gilmere on 24 June 1916. He adopted her son, Harry A. Wills died in Cleveland and was buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.