Remembering FAMU pioneer Dr. Willie T. Williams

Delaitre J. Hollinger

On June 16, pioneering Florida A&M University educator and activist Willie T. Williams, Ph.D., passed from labor to reward at the age of 87. Dr. Williams’ passing marked the end of an era for FAMU, as well as for the Tallahassee and Monticello communities.

I have known Dr. Williams my entire life; a span of nearly 30 years. A very close friend and colleague of my mother’s at FAMU for more than two decades, Dr. Williams served the university for nearly 40 years as Professor of English and Chairperson of the Department of English and Modern Languages. No person, other than my mother, was more committed to fostering my love of learning with a particular interest in African-American history and culture, than Willie T. Williams. 

She was a mentor, who was quick to correct me when she felt that I was butchering the English language that she loved so fervently. She was quick to instill respect for your elders by telling you to say “Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am,” or “Please and Thank You.” She was a voracious reader of African-American poems, books and literature, with a particular fondness for the poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. Her favorite poem was “Mother to Son” by Hughes.

Dr. Williams’ life work and first priority were her students at FAMU, thousands of whom benefitted from her transformational, innovative and focused teaching style. She had the uncanny ability to make everyone with whom she interacted feel as though they were the most important person in the world to her. She encouraged her students to apply themselves beyond their undergraduate studies, encouraging them to earn doctorates in English. She made generations of FAMUans believe in themselves and believe that they could elevate themselves beyond whatever trying circumstances they may have faced.

“She was an outstanding teacher and one who held FAMU very dear to her heart. I can’t think of any time when FAMU was second in her thinking to anything,” said Dr. Aubrey Perry, Dean Emeritus of the FAMU College of Arts and Sciences. Perry, who served as Dean from 1984 to 1997 and is a FAMU Professor of Psychology Emeritus, said that he wanted Williams to be remembered as a very dedicated and affable person who loved the students and community very much.

“I remember when she was down at the (FAMU) high school, and even when she taught at that level, she held FAMU in high esteem,” Perry said. “She brought that (same) enthusiasm with her when she came to the campus. Her loss is a significant one to FAMU and its history. It will be very hard to find someone with the history, enthusiasm, knowledge, and affection for FAMU that she had.”

Indeed, late FAMU President Frederick Humphries, who earned an undergraduate degree from FAMU in the same class as Williams, convinced her to delay her retirement for a decade. Former President James Ammons named her as the university’s most valuable employee in 2007.

Dr. Williams was born Willie Ree Tillman in Monticello to Robert Clemon and Sevilla Burney Tillman, the founders of Tillman Funeral Home. Mr. Tillman had been the first Black funeral director in Jefferson County, also owning and operating funeral homes in Madison and Perry along with his wife. He responded to fatalities at a time when ambulance service was not widely provided for Blacks. I remember spending many days with Mrs. Tillman, who died in 2006 at the age of 109. 

Like her parents, Dr. Williams aimed to serve humanity in myriad ways which will probably never be measured fully. Her desire was to ensure that every person she encountered felt seen, honored and loved. I still have many of historical African-American art pieces she gifted me at a very young age in order to encourage me to learn who the individuals in the images were. She saturated me with books and poems, and never missed an opportunity to impart wisdom.

Her long and distinguished career touched many, including former student Dr. Veronica Adams Yon, the current Chair of FAMU’s English Department.

“Dr. Willie T. was one of the most collegial and giving people I have ever encountered – not only at FAMU but also in life. Her go-to gifts often included books, angels, and embroidered items in FAMU’s colors,” Yon said. “As a senior faculty member and department chair, she helped me navigate the ins and outs of administrative processes and showed how important it is to honor and respect everyone. I hold fond memories of our times together at FAMU and in Monticello; she will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Indeed, I will always remember and cherish my memories with Dr. Willie T. Williams. May she rest in God’s perfect peace.

Delaitre Hollinger is a community activist. Contact him at delaitrehollinger@gmail.com.

 


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