FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS: Lorraine A. Williams and the Howard University Department of History

By Ham, Debra Newman | Negro History Bulletin, July-December 1998 | Go to article overview

FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS: Lorraine A. Williams and the Howard University Department of History


Ham, Debra Newman, Negro History Bulletin


   Swing on in, sister!
   Tell us like it was,
   And is.
   Swing right on in.
   Clean out our minds,
   Scour our whitewashed souls
   Break apart our murky,
   Knotty confusions,
   Our preconceptions, our lies,
   Our strange slowness
   To believe that black is strong.(*)

In the midst of the changing times, Lorraine Anderson Williams (1923-1996) was changing places. As a history major who graduated with a master's degree from Howard in 1945 and a Ph.D. from American University in 1955, Williams desired for many years to find a place in Howard's history department. Yet, there was generally stiff resistance to hiring Howard graduates or drawing faculty from general education programs like the social sciences where Williams taught and served as program director for more than twenty years. Howard faculty members called this process of internal hiring "coming in through the back door." From time to time, she taught courses in the history department but had difficulty becoming a member of the full-time faculty.(1)

As the Bible says, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house." Although her degrees and publications were in history and some of the professors who had trained her at Howard were senior professors in the department, she still seemed to be up against a brick wall for many years. After a semester acting as associate dean during a disturbing period of student unrest and confronted with opposition, Williams, nevertheless, obtained a position on the history faculty during the 1969-70 academic year. Every faculty member in the department initially opposed Williams' transfer except Chancellor Williams, her former colleague in the social science program, who had also come in through the proverbial back door. Chancellor Williams argued that the faculty members were jealous of Williams and informed his colleagues that he would never vote for one of them to become a full professor if they were not willing to let Williams become a member of the department. His tactic was successful, and he was able to win enough votes to secure an appointment for Williams.

In addition to prejudice against internal hiring, the resistance to Williams probably was based on her seniority and a higher rank than some of the history faculty members because of her publications in historical journals. A few mistrusted or resented her ability to communicate with militant students, or thought that she compromised with them too much. Some of those, who had seen her administrative style and ability in the social sciences program from 1962 to 1969 and as associate dean, feared that she would take over the department. Others argued that she had little experience teaching history courses.

Williams did have history teaching experience. Besides teaching occasional history courses at Howard, Williams taught two black history courses during the 196970 term at the University of Maryland where the majority of her students were white. The students were interested enough in her lectures to bring friends and family members to hear her presentations in the sizable auditorium where her classes were held. Some of the students were baffled because Williams centered her lectures on the achievements of black people from their African past through the social and political gains of the sixties. One student even asked her when she was going to talk about the pimps and prostitutes. Williams replied, "Never."

In May 1969, outgoing history chair Elsie M. Lewis wrote to liberal arts dean, Vincent J. Brown, suggesting that Williams teach two courses: "United States History for Majors and Minors" and "Civil War and Reconstruction." Lewis stated that Williams, who was already a member of the liberal arts faculty, had been a part-time member of the history department for several years. Two months later, Harold Lewis wrote to Williams confirming her appointment to a position in the Department of History to begin in the 1969-70 academic year. …

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