WILLS, J. WALTER SR. (3 June 1874 - 23 April 1971), founder and director of the state's largest black-owned funeral business, HOUSE OF WILLS, was born to Silas and Anna (Wilson) Wills, who migrated from Winchester, Kentucky, to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1868. 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 and Wills Funeral Co. When the partnership dissolved in 1907, following Gee's death, Wills formed the J. W. Wills 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 National Negro Business League. Will 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 ASSOCIATION. Wills often aided the needy as the city's black population expanded, including distributing food and offering free funeral services to those who could not pay. Wills was a conductor and trainer of choral groups. He was choir director and a vestry committeeman at ST. ANDREW'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH and, later, a prominent member of MT. ZION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH. In 1969, the Community Center at the King-Kennedy Apartments in the Central area was named in his honor.
Wills was married twice. His first marriage on 29 March 1900 was to Alberta Lee; they had one son, J. Walter, Jr. Divorced in 1915 Wills' second marriage was to Blanch Gilmere on 24 June 1916. He adopted her son, Harry A. Wills died in Cleveland and was buried at LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.
Updated by Mark Souther