Fola Williams: Changing Monroe County

By Alex Smith

Monroe, North Carolina is founded on tradition and Southern institution. Notable for many reasons, to me, it was the place I have called home since birth, and to the rest of our nation, it is the birthplace of Belk Department stores, dedicated to “Modern. Southern. Style.”

Monroe has been crafted on the Belk name, the original store still nestled in a prominent spot in the middle of downtown. We are proud to announce that the Belk inception took place there. It’s been a badge of honor and entrepreneurship for the townspeople. But not everything can be attributed to the Belk family, close friends of my family in the early 1900s. There is a story of a young woman and a pioneer intertwined in Monroe’s history, and my own history, as my great-great aunt.

Her story is one that has inspired me since I was a child.

Breaking glass ceilings when they seemed bulletproof, Fola Williams’s name is legend throughout Union County, North Carolina, for numerous accomplishments that I have held in reverie since I was old enough to understand their magnitude. In a sense, for the young people of Monroe, North Carolina, she reconstructed the meaning of “woman”, and even more important, the meaning of “lady”.

Fola Williams began her career with Belk Department Stores at eighteen, in 1922, unheard of for a young woman. At such a young age, she had already stepped outside of the boundaries set in place by Southern men for Southern women. They were supposed to get married! Have children! Fola Williams was not only a working woman in the early 1900s but a successful working woman. Though she started as a clerk, she formed a bond with the Belks, and climbing the corporate ladder, she became the first female buyer for the department store. Now, a company that has grown worldwide, she stands at the helm for all women involved in the corporation; a monumental accomplishment for women of the day. Fola Williams, alone, boarded a train to New York City, choosing what should be sold in the stores as they grew, the only woman at the time and most definitely the first. She was the first woman in Union County to get her driver’s license, ultimately having a street named after her in Monroe.

While Fola Williams may not be a household name, she remains an icon for the young women in my family. We are constantly inspired by the barriers that she broke for the female population in our community; where women are not necessarily looked at as equals. I am constantly reminded of what has been achieved by those who make small movements toward equality through empowering themselves and others. Fola Williams did not change the world for all women, but for those in Monroe, North Carolina, she revolutionized the role of “woman”, simultaneously becoming a founding mother for one of the nation’s most well-known department stores. In that sense, she changed the world for me.