Willis: An Introduction

Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Willis: An Introduction


Chapter One

In a tribute to his graduate school professor, James P. Gallagher wrote, "Dr. Willis insisted that students and faculty alike refer to him simply as Willis."i Even Willis's wife, Georgine Upshur Willis, referred to her husband as "Willis."ii And so we begin with the story of Willis. Born July 11, 1921, in Waco, Texas, Willis was the only child of wealthy, college-educated parents. His father, William S. Willis, Sr., resigned from his position as principal of a black high school, as Peggy Reeves Sanday writes, "in protest against the subservience expected of him by the Waco school board." He established a construction company to build homes for poor blacks, and "became grand chancellor of the Colored Knights of Pythians [sic] of Texas, a black fraternal organization." Partly in response to an ultimatum from the Waco Ku Klux Klan, William Sr. moved his family to Dallas in 1923 into a stately Federal-style home he had built in the early 1920s.iii

The family owned another home in Chicago where they spent every summer, and as Sanday notes, they traveled broadly. Willis's father was able to establish good relations with the white business community in Dallas, "a relationship few African Americans could establish given the restrictions imposed by segregation."iv

As Mrs. Willis recounted, "His father died when he was very young-something like five." Despite being "a strict and puritanical" woman, Willis's mother took him on a round-the-world tour and returned home to raise her son in Dallas. Mrs. Willis continued, "He read a lot as a child. He read very heavy intellectual things. When his cousin came to visit, he used to sit her down on a chair and read her all of these things that she didn't understand since she was younger than he."v Willis attended segregated schools and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1938. V1 He went on to Howard University where he majored in history and had a minor concentration in sociology and literature. As Willis wrote, "Rayford Logan was my major professor. I also studied under Sterling Brown, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, and Charles Wesley. I was introduced at Howard to the study of Negro history and culture, an understandable preoccupation at this university. "(TM) Mrs. Willis said, "He enjoyed his time at Howard. He was very attracted to the Black Historic Movement." And while typically a bit of a solitary person, Willis had "a good time with the college boys," as Mrs. Willis said. "They all liked him because he had a sense of humor."viii In 1942, Willis graduated from Howard cum laude. Volunteering for the United States Coast Guard, Willis was posted in Boston for shore patrol, saw combat duty in the North Atlantic, and left the Coast Guard in 1944.ix

While his professor at Howard, Rayford Logan, had urged him to attend Harvard Law School, instead Willis entered Columbia in 1945, first to study political science and then to move into anthropology. The faculty at Columbia at this time included Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Harry Shapiro, William Duncan Strong, Charles Wagley, and Gene Weltfish.x In an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, Willis explained his choice of study: "I shifted to anthropology because I assumed that this discipline was the vanguard in the attack against racist thought. I tried to reconcile the concentration on North American Indians that then prevailed in anthropology with my strong interests in history and in the study of Black people by selecting Black-Indian relations in Southeastern North America as the problem for my dissertation."xi He continued, "I soon discovered that this problem could not be handled adequately until a more satisfactory knowledge existed about sociocultural change among 18th century Indians in this region. Therefore, my dissertation ended as a study of the economic, military, and political patterns among the Cherokees of the 18th century." Willis's dissertation research was supported in part by a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship, which he was awarded in 1949. …

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