How a scholar's research and an 80-year old letter righted a forgotten wrong
By Vince Frieden, strategic communications coordinator, Miami University Libraries
Originally appeared in the February 2018 Illuminant & Annual Update
Within a yellowed manila folder, filed among the endless rows of vertical files and tidy blue boxes containing Miami University’s history, waited a heart-wrenching story in need of a voice.
It spoke of a time 25 years before the eloquently stated dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it contained a now unthinkable wrong – long overdue for correction.
A story finds its storyteller
When Zeb Baker first visited Miami University’s campus in 2013 to interview for a job in the University Honors Program, he had a research project going on the side.
The son of a former Georgia Southern University athletic director, Baker was fascinated by the history of segregation in college football and was in the early stages of researching his upcoming book, “Playing the Game of Segregation: Race and College Football in the Postwar Midwest.”
As part of his visit, Baker stopped by the university archives. During the visit, then-university archivist Robert Schmidt offered a folder of materials about African-American students at Miami, hinting that Baker might find something of interest.
The folder included a pair of 1939 letters regarding an African-American student named Jerry Williams.
The exchange between Miami’s then-president Alfred H. Upham and an assistant superintendent of schools from Cleveland came at a time when Miami’s enrollment of 2,700 included only 15 African-Americans. In those days, African-American students did not receive housing in the residence halls, except for student-athletes who resided in the basement of Swing Hall.
It was also a time when student teaching in Oxford schools was not an option for an African-American.
The letter discussed Williams’ qualifications for certification as a teacher. President Upham spoke glowingly of the respect Williams had earned from his classmates and faculty while noting he had completed all required coursework. However, the university could not confer a degree because Williams had not completed his practice teaching – an opportunity unavailable to him because of his race.
By today’s standards, some of the language and inferences in the letter are offensive.
In his response, the clearly frustrated assistant superintendent openly questioned why a university would admit a student into a school of education without being obligated to provide practice teaching. He conceded, however; that without the required degree and teaching certificate, he could not permit Williams to teach.
“I was flabbergasted,” Baker said. “Having researched in some 190 different archives, I can authoritatively attest that I had never seen anything like the exchange between these two men.”
Uncovering a lost Miami legend
Baker, now senior associate director of Miami’s University Honors program, got the job and soon thereafter began pulling at the threads."
“I came to find that Jerry Williams was probably the most famous student at Miami during that period,” Baker said. “He was incredibly well admired by other students.”
Williams, considered Miami’s first African-American football standout, was a two-sport student-athlete, earning three letters each in football and track & field. A two-time All-Buckeye Conference back, he also was the place kicker for the 1936 Buckeye Conference football champions. On the track, he helped lead Miami to three conference titles.
Jacqueline Johnson, the current university archivist who succeeded Schmidt, became an ally in the effort to uncover Williams’ story.
From the original letter, they knew Williams had attempted to gain practice teaching by assisting in the instruction of an automobile course at Miami. Through another uncovered letter, they learned that Williams received National Youth Administration aid and worked in the Withrow Court athletics equipment room.
They already knew he had to be an excellent student to earn acceptance into college as an African-American during that time. Along the way, they discovered that Williams ran a leg of a state championship relay at Cleveland’s East Technical High School with the legendary Jesse Owens. The search also turned up Williams’ 1999 obituary.
“Historical research can be deeply personal work,” Johnson said. “It’s powerful and sometimes life-changing.”
“A great day”
There was never any hesitation about what needed to happen.
After verifying and re-verifying with the registrar that Williams had indeed completed all his required coursework, the conversation elevated to the president’s office, the provost’s office and to Michael Dantley, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Society.
In April 2017, Dantley placed a phone call to Janis Williams ’68, daughter of Jerry Williams. He explained the situation and informed her that her father would receive his Miami University degree, posthumously.
“I burst into tears right away,” Janis recalled.
Dantley presented the degree to the family during commencement activities on May 14, 2017. He introduced Williams’ story by announcing it was time to right a wrong.
“Jerry Williams’ story is a reminder that there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to making our world a more just and equal place,” Dantley said.
Conversations with Williams’ family and a treasure trove of documents discovered in the family’s attic, since donated to Miami’s archival collections, revealed the story of a deeply humble man who never backed down.
After another attempt at gaining professional teaching experience failed, World War II arrived, and Williams enlisted. He served as a master sergeant mechanic with the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Until an old Army buddy visited the house one day, his family never knew.
He left the military in 1947 and balanced two jobs for much of his life.
“He’d leave at 6:30 in the morning, teach all day, then work the 3-11 p.m. shift with the police department, Janis said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he always had time for us.”
While records and family recollections fail to tell the story of how Williams finally earned his teaching license, he eventually did and worked as a teacher at Central High School and Robert H. Jamison, Nathan Hale and Audubon junior high schools until his 1979 retirement. He also spent 25 years as an investigator with the Cleveland Police Department, working for a groundbreaking juvenile division.
“He was a dignified man, a good husband and a great father,” Janis said. “He was a man who never boasted about his accomplishments.”
A remarkable Miami man
In fall 2017, Williams received another honor when he took his place as a true pioneer in Miami University’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Despite the wrong that Miami did not correct in his lifetime, Williams never voiced animosity toward Miami. Until Dean Dantley’s call, Williams’ children, Janis and Jerry Jr., never knew why their father did not graduate.
Now on display in the room where Williams used to sleep are a Miami University degree and a Miami flag, presented to the family by President Greg and University Ambassador Renate Crawford, which flew over Miami’s campus in Williams’ honor.
“I know how much Miami meant to dad. He loved this school, and he imparted that to us,” Janis said. “That’s why I was so emotional when Dean Dantley called. I thought, ‘You finally got it. And you deserved it.’ It was a great day.”
That is the story of Jerry Williams ’39 – a tale of redemption that might never have been if not for a nearly 80-year old letter that, in revealing a dark side of Miami’s past, opened the door to the shining example of a remarkable Miami man.