The CEO of Freedom

By Emily Gold Boutilier / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
For Archie Williams, who founded Freedom Industries, a small business conglomerate based in the Roxbury and Dorchester sections of Boston, owning a business was not simply a quest for profits. It was a vehicle for social change. Williams died on November 28 at his home in Roxbury. He was sixty-eight.

A lawyer by training, Williams launched Freedom Industries in 1968, convinced that “black-owned businesses offer the best hope for solving the employment and economic problems of black urban areas,” as he once told the Springfield, Massachusetts, Sunday Republican. The conglomerate, which thrived during the 1970s, included two supermarkets, an electronics firm, an advertising agency, and a tool-and-die casting company, all designed to revitalize the economically depressed neighborhoods where they were based. “We hire within the community, spend within the community, and produce work both in and outside the community,” Williams told Ad East, a New England advertising-industry newspaper, in 1971.

The most successful of the ventures was Freedom Electronics and Engineering, which assembled transformers, cables, and printed circuit boards for such firms as Raytheon and IBM. To encourage loyalty and to combat absenteeism, Williams advanced wages to employees unable to pay their rent and offered flexible working hours. Company holidays included the birthdays of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As another company benefit, Williams would sometimes serve as attorney to employees and their families.

Freedom Electronics lasted about two decades, but Freedom Foods, which by some accounts was the first minority-owned supermarket chain in the country, faced tougher challenges. The stores withstood dozens of burglaries and an armed robbery in which two security guards were killed. These were particularly devastating since Williams, the Wall Street Journal reported in 1977, had been unable to purchase insurance against theft. But Williams refused to be discouraged. His response to the failure of one venture was to embark on a new one. In 1995 he became president of Roxbury Technology Corporation, a manufacturer and distributor of toner cartridges for laser printers.

The seeds of his determination were planted early, after he was diagnosed with polio as a child and told he would never walk again. Instead, he went on to become a high school and college football star, breaking the Brown season record for average yards per carry. He was also a member of Omega Psi Phi at Brown and later became a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.

He worked early in his career for the Legal Aid Society of Boston, the Veterans Administration, and the New England Community Development Corporation. He helped revitalize Boston’s Franklin Park Golf Course, which was known for its welcoming attitude toward men, women, and children of all races. “I’ve played golf since 1958,” he told the Boston Globe in 1990, “and I would guess every black golfer knows what no one else knows, and that is that every head turns in wonderment if you appear at certain golf clubs.” He also served on the board of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A trustee emeritus of Brown, he is survived by his wife, Norma; two daughters, including Elizabeth ’86; two grandchildren; a brother; and a sister.

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March / April 2003