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Honoring Jamye Coleman Williams
- A Passion for Education & Justice

Jamye Coleman Williams (December 15, 1918 – January 19, 2022) was an American activist for social reform and justice, a scholar, and a leader within academe and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.).

Dr. Jamye Coleman Williams was the guest speaker at Harvard University’s Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. At age 97, Dr. Williams is a vibrant, contemporary woman who has fought for equality in education and civil rights. The diverse audience of young and old included teenage freshmen, graduates, faculty, and guests, and the distinguished educator Dr. McDonald Williams (age 98), who is her husband.


Hearing her speak, I thought of these words written by the great American philosopher and poet, Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism:

“[A person] will not be fully human until he [or she] is interested in justice with great intensity and with the comprehensiveness which does not wish to miss any of its forms.... Where something is wrong in the outside world, we should oppose it not only because it has affected us inconveniently, but because the idea of not opposing injustice, the sense of personal shame in permitting what is evil anywhere, makes one not like oneself.”

Dr. Williams’ rich life has been spent opposing injustice in many important ways. In her talk she discussed her work as a civil rights activist in the 1950s-60s; an educator for over 48 years in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)) and, in the AME Church.

She was introduced by Dr. S. Allen Counter, one of her earliest students, now a professor of neuro- biology at Harvard. He described how crucial HBCUs were before the civil rights movement—and beyond—as the only opportunity for higher education accessible to black students. And, in the rare instances where black men and women were able to attend white colleges, they were denied jobs as teachers there when they graduated. Meanwhile, he noted that ironically, this
injustice led to the employment of these highly educated and dedicated black teachers at HBCUs. Dr. Counter expressed his gratitude for having been a student at an HBCU—Tennessee State A&I (now TSU) — and he was clearly moved to host his dear professor as guest speaker.

Education & the AME Church—Then and Now

Dr. Williams began her talk by asking young scholars to commit themselves “to careers in academe, which truly, sure enough needs you.” While telling further of her talk, I’ll also add some instances of what she’s said elsewhere, including conversations we have had because of my work as a journalist and civil rights historian, work informed by my study of Aesthetic Realism. She makes clear throughout her talk that her interest in justice isn’t over; and that she continues to ask for more from herself—and others.

There is a maxim by Eli Siegel which I believe expresses the large way every person should be seen: “Every person now alive is a culmination of history.” It is certainly true about Dr. Williams, whose life has been deeply affected in particular by events in American history as far back as the 1700s and the brutality of slavery, as well as events in the 20th and 21st centuries that she witnessed and participated in.


She was born in 1918 in Louisville, Kentucky, and later earned a B.A. with honors in English from her beloved alma mater Wilberforce University in Ohio. Later she lived and taught in Tennessee and Georgia. And because the AME church is one of the big forces in her life—her father and brother were AME ministers—she told some history of this church and its unflagging activism for higher education and economic justice for over 200 years.

The AME church is the oldest African American religious denomination in America. It arose from the Free African Society organized in 1787 by freemen protesting against slavery and racial segregation in houses of worship. In 1816, the AME was formally organized in Philadelphia, largely through the work of a former slave who bought his freedom, Rev. Richard Allen. In 1856, just before the Civil War, the AME church established its first college—Wilberforce, in Ohio— and has stood firmly ever since for education as the key to equal opportunity.


Dr. Williams expressed pride in having taught the humanities to thousands of students at 5 HBCUs, 4 of which are AME colleges, and being “part of their educational experience.”


Among her many students who would later become notable in their fields are: opera singer Leontyne Price, Grammy-winning gospel singer Bobby Jones, Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph; and, in addition, 8 students of hers became AME bishops, 3 became college presidents, 2 became seminary presidents, and others went on to careers in medicine, engineering, government, and law.

“Education Determines Our Dreams and Destiny.”

She is fervent about the need for HBCUs to survive, against the odds today, when “soaring budgets and diminishing resources,” make it hard for black colleges to withstand the “brain drain” caused by recruitment of promising black students by well-endowed colleges. In 2010 she spoke on the theme, “Education Determines Our Dreams and Destiny,” to an interdenominational gathering of ministers, educators and leaders, to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and the 28th anniversary of the national holiday in his name.

Calling it “a sad time,” when poverty, unemployment, and rising college costs, severely threaten HBCUs, she stressed with great intensity that equality of educational opportunity is a crucial “avenue for our youth [to] realize their dream and destiny” when “more of our young men are in prison than in college.“

At Harvard, she urged the students there, so fortunate in their access to knowledge, to “combat the obstacles to parity in education for African Americans.”


When Jamye Williams says “Thank God for the black college,” it is a statement that takes in her whole life, and it is meant!

Civil Rights: The Fight between Contempt and Respect

My work as an historian of civil rights led to my knowing Dr. Williams and attending her talk. We were introduced by two of our mutual friends, retired AME Bishop Frederick C. James of South Carolina, and Mrs. Rosetta Perry, publisher of the Tennessee Tribune. They—and now Dr. Jamye Williams—are among the 200 men and women nationwide whom I’ve interviewed for “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights” oral history project.


The project aims to preserve little known history of the struggle for justice, and to meet the urgent need in America to understand the cause and answer to racism, explained by Aesthetic Realism. The moment-to- moment ethical fight in every human being, Eli Siegel taught, is between contempt—“the addition to self through the lessening of something else” and respect—wanting to know and be fair to the world and people. It is the desire for contempt, that is the cause of racism and every human injustice.


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