5 questions with…top black women’s history scholar Rhonda Y. Williams

WilliamsAs an undergraduate at University of Maryland, College Park, Rhonda Y. Williams’ first black women’s history class was taught by prominent scholar Sharon Harley. A few years later, when applying for graduate history programs, Harley wrote her a recommendation letter. Then, in graduate school at University of Pennsylvania, Williams studied under noted historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (now a professor at Harvard University).

Just weeks ago, Williams, now an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve, again found herself among these women who helped shape her career. Only this time, Williams’ achievements and contributions to the field were touted alongside those her mentors: Williams—and 19 others—were named “The Keepers of Black Women’s History” by The Root, an online magazine of African-American culture affiliated with Slate.

The Root recognized Williams for her research in urban and housing policy, the war on poverty, black power politics and low-income black women’s grassroots organizing.

Williams received the honor with little accolade; in fact, she learned about it by being “tagged” in a Facebook post by a fellow scholar, who said Williams’ work was among those who had motivated her.

“I felt really honored by her,” Williams said, “and, of course, to be listed among numerous black women historians whose research I drew inspiration from as a graduate student and admire even now.”

In Good Company

Some of the women on The Root’s list are Williams’ friends and fellow scholar-activists, while others have produced scholarly work she’d admired from a distance. Their work includes studies of civil rights activists, the black women’s movement in religion, slavery and sexual violence—and many are well known for their work beyond research and publishing, Williams noted.

“I dog-eared, underlined, sometimes even highlighted—and I’m a stickler about my books—and still refer to and teach the books written by several of the other black women scholars,” she said.

She’s even brought some to campus to speak, and been asked by others to present at their universities.

“Many of these women blazed paths in the academy,” she said. “They produced groundbreaking and cutting-edge scholarship on a diverse group of black women—their lives, work and labors, religiosity, culture and creativity, politics, feminism, and activism. These black women historians, and the black women historical actors in their struggles, serve as mentors.

Blazing Her Own Trail

Williams, herself, is a trailblazer in academia: In 1989, she became the first black salutatorian in University of Maryland’s 187-year history. She was the first person in her immediate family to earn an advanced degree, and has been featured in The Washington Post, Baltimore Evening Sun and Jet magazine for her accomplishments. She said she also was the first black person to receive tenure in the history department at CWRU.

“I am proud of all of this … but you can’t help but ponder the bigger social and systemic issues: Why are we still having these kinds of ‘firsts’ in this day and age?” Williams noted. “Indeed, we need to continue to break racial, gender and other types of barriers—and celebrate—but we can’t forget that, my goodness, there is still so much work for all of us to do to fight inequality on numerous levels. So much. So much.”

It’s a task she’s taken up as founder and director of the Social Justice Institute, created through the university’s previous strategic plan to advance education, research and community engagement to inspire solutions to societal problems.

Williams wrote about such societal issues in a recent award-winning book, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality, which recently was named one of the “15 Books About Black Women’s History Everyone Should Read” by For Harriet, an online community for women of African ancestry.

In it, one of her interviewees, Shirley Wise—who Williams calls “an activist and organic intellectual … and community agitator”—described herself as a “keeper of information.”

So for Williams to be described similarly—as a “keeper of black women’s history”— “well, it is a tremendous honor and responsibility,” she said.

To learn more about Williams—also known across campus as “Dr. Rhonda”—read her answers to this week’s five questions.

1. Facebook or Twitter?
I crawl when it comes to technology. So no Twitter account. Hey, how about this: Maybe a student who feels sympathy for “Dr. Rhonda” will help her set one up and give her a tutorial in how to use it! I do have a Facebook page, facebook.com/Dr.Rhonda. So does the Social Justice Institute of Case Western Reserve University. Join us!

2. What is your favorite building on campus and why?
Wherever I can get a hot cup of tasty “mud coffee,” or wherever a Social Justice Institute program or event is taking place!

3. What is your favorite vacation spot?
Vacation? What is that? Maybe I need an intervention! I went to London last year for the first time, and I’ve been to Australia twice—Sydney/Canberra and then Brisbane. I hope to go to Ireland. I’ve never been there, and I’d love to go back to Australia.

4. What is one of your hidden talents?
Aha! I can “sing”—but only when the music is really blaring, and you can’t distinguish my voice from that of the truly fabulous vocalist.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
One of my favorite things, as a scholar-activist, has been having the opportunity to work with others to turn ideas into reality. This has included establishing the African-American Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is based in the College of Arts and Sciences and is now in its sixth year, as well as launching the CWRU Social Justice Institute, which started as a vision in 2008 and came to life in 2010.