John W. Winters, Sr. (1920-2004)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Born on January 21, 1920 in Raleigh, North Carolina, John W. Winters, Sr. lived an accomplished life in the city where his “family home” had always been.  Before he died on February 15, 2004, Winters started a construction company and real estate management business and became Raleigh’s first African American city councilman and one of the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina State Senate since the Reconstruction Era.  

According to Winters, his Tar Heel lineage started when his great-grandfather, James Winters, a free black and lawyer, moved to Raleigh in 1793.  As a boy, Winters lived in what he called a “mixed neighborhood,” located near present-day Martin Street.  During a 1989 interview, Winters recalled that in his childhood African Americans donated generously to local black churches, universities, and Masonic lodges.  He also remembered that African American community life in Raleigh revolved around such institutions.

Winters’s entrepreneurial career began in the late 1950s.  As a young man, he worked sundry jobs as a waiter, poultry farmer, railroad worker, dairy salesman, and skycap.  He saved his small paychecks and tips to start a construction business so that he might build affordable homes for African Americans.  In 1957, Winters started John W. Winters and Company, a home construction business.  From building a few homes per year, this company expanded in 1960 to developing land and is noted particularly for developing the subdivisions of Madonna Acres near St. Augustine College and Biltmore Hills in Southeast Raleigh.  Under Winters’s direction, John W. Winters and Company built many shopping centers and apartment complexes, the most famous being Wintershaven, an apartment complex for senior citizens, and the most interesting being what the Raleigh News and Observer called “an experiment in home ownership and entrepreneurship”: the Brown Birch Apartments.  At Brown Birch, people could buy units to live in and rent out, to be tenants and landlords.

Winters’s entrepreneurial enterprise also included starting a real estate management company.  A real estate management company performs credit checks, hires and supervises contractors, processes billing, and writes in-depth market analysis and financial reports for property owners.  By the late 1970s, John W. Winters and Company managed property, constructed apartments, and sold real estate and casualty and fire insurance.

The political career of John W. Winters, Sr. started shortly after his entrepreneurial career.  As a child, Winters frequently heard his father discuss politics, and especially the progressive administration of Governor Thomas Walker Bickett (1917-1921).  This no doubt affected Winters’s lifelong interest in politics, participation in the gubernatorial campaigns of Governor Kerr Scott and Governor Terry Sanford, and decision to run for the Raleigh City Council.  In 1961, Winters earned the distinction of being Raleigh’s first African American city councilman.  He won this election before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a national law guaranteeing that African Americans could register to vote.  During the late 1960s, the number of African American voters increased every election.  This phenomenon undoubtedly contributed to Winters serving three, two-year terms as a Raleigh city councilman (1961-1967).  On January 18, 1963, Governor Sanford nominated Councilman Winters to serve on the newly created Good Neighbors Council.  The twenty four member committee encouraged youths to develop job skills and employers to hire without regard to race.  The Council was also established to discourage civil rights demonstrations, for Sanford believed, the protests no longer fostered racial integration and harmony, but placed obstacles in their way.

Winters’s political service continued into the 1970s.  In 1974, he and Fred Alexander of Mecklenburg County were the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina Senate since the Reconstruction Era.  In 1977, Governor James Hunt appointed Winters to the state Utilities Commission.  

Winters served his political party and community in various ways.  From 1964-1970, he was the vice-chairman of the Wake County Democratic Executive Committee.  His opinions were constantly sought, as evidenced by his participation in various community, state, and national committees, including the Wake County Homebuilders Association and the National Association of Home Builders. A Roman Catholic, Winters found time to serve as vice-president and eventually president of the board of consultants to the bishop.  While owning and managing a business, he also served on the Governor’s International Student Relations Committee, on the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system, on the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and on board of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, a brotherhood that included other black Tar Heel politicians, including Dr. Carl Devane and Clarence Lightner, the only black mayor of Raleigh.