William Edmondson was born in 1874 in Davidson County, Tennessee. He did not know the exact year of his birth because of a fire that destroyed the family Bible. Recent research into census records indicates that he was born in December, 1874. He was one of six children of freed slaves Orange and Jane Edmondson. He grew up in what was then a rural part Davidson County on the Compton plantation where his mother and father had been enslaved and now worked as sharecroppers. He had little or no formal education, and it was reported that he was unable to read or write. His father died sometime around 1889, and he and his siblings and mother moved into Nashville. William got a good job working at the expansive new Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway shops. After an injury he sustained at the Railway shops around 1909, Edmondson took a job as a janitor at the white Women’s Hospital, where he worked for roughly 20 years.
Edmondson never married. His wages at Women’s hospital allowed him to buy a modest home in the segregated Edgehill neighborhood in Nashville. He shared the home with his mother and sister until their deaths, as well as occasionally other siblings, nieces and nephews. When the Great Depression hit and the hospital closed in 1931, he did some part-time jobs and sold vegetables that he grew in his backyard.
Edmondson entered the world of sculpture by a divine command. He reported that he received a vision from God, who told him to start sculpting. He began his career by working on tombstones, which were sold or given to friends and family in the community. Soon he began carving lawn ornaments, birdbaths, and decorative sculptures. He worked primarily with chunks of discarded limestone from demolished buildings, which were delivered to him by wrecking companies’ trucks.