Bringing the past to life: Samford professor writes about her family’s Titanic tale, the Wright brothers in Montgomery

By MADOLINE MARKHAM

Author and Samford professor Julie Williams. Photo courtesy of Julie Williams.

For Julie Williams, journalism isn’t just a profession but a day-to-day record of history. By delving into newspapers and magazines, she paints pictures of the past. Lately, the Samford journalism professor and media historian has written popular history books about the Wright brothers and her family’s experience on the RMS Titanic.

Always fascinated with the Wright brothers, Williams’ parents raised her in Dayton, Ohio and then North Carolina, but she never realized the brothers had spent time in Alabama until she discovered a photo of their flight school in Montgomery. After some research, she discovered that the first night flights were flown from Montgomery at the airfield that would later become part of Maxwell Airforce Base.

Twelve years ago Williams wrote a research paper on media coverage of the one semester the school was in Alabama, and fellow historians encouraged her to turn it into a book. The final product, On the Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, 1910, was published for the 100 year anniversary of the school last year.

“I wanted it to be fun and readable and also useful to historians,” she said of the book.

Since then she’s spoken to an engineers club in Dayton, a group in Kitty Hawk and many Wright fans.

Following another idea from her family, this month Williams is releasing a book about how her great-uncle, Albert Caldwell, survived the Titanic. The book will publish this month just before the 100-year anniversary of the 1912 sinking.

Starting with only a photograph and memories of Caldwell, Williams pieced together the story of her great-uncle, his wife and infant son waking up after the motor of the ocean liner stopped, not seeing any reason to get off the boat at first and ultimately rowing away in a life boat an hour before the ship went down.

Much has been written about the Titanic since the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster, but Williams thinks her book is unique because of the pre-story of her uncle and his family.

Caldwell’s family had been serving as Presbyterian missionaries to Siam, or present day Thailand, but had decided to leave because of Caldwell’s wife, Sylvia’s, illness. They boarded the Titanic second-class, hoping its large size would prevent her seasickness.

However, the Presbyterian church believed that Sylvia was not in fact sick and that she and her husband were just using it as an excuse to leave Siam. Just after the couple arrived in New York, the church was waiting to take Sylvia to the hospital—not because of the rescue from the Titanic but for a medical evaluation to determine prior illness.

A former newspaper reporter who researched colonial media in graduate school, Williams lives in a historic home near St. Vincent’s Hospital with her husband and two teenage sons. She is contemplating what to write about next, possibly the early space race.

On the Wings of Opportunity and A Rare Titanic Family are available at Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor, Barnes and Noble and online retailers.

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