When Africana Studies department chair Barbara Savage came to School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty to suggest hiring historian Heather Andrea Williams, “I think my reaction was ‘wow, can we get her?’” he remembers. “My reaction was immediate. Let’s do it.”
Williams specializes in African American slavery and has written two books on the topic, the first of which started as her dissertation and became, Selt-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. On July 1, Williams will join the Africana Studies department as the sixth recipient of the Presidential Professorship. The professorship is sponsored in part by a $2 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, and was conceived as part of the Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence.
“She brings a much-needed dimension of history,” Africana Studies department chair Barbara Savage said. The multi-disciplinary department also includes professors specializing in political science, sociology, and music among other fields.
Her latest project, supported by a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, breaks the boundaries of the page. She is creating a documentary and archive of interviews with Jamaicans who migrated to the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s. She seeks to answer the question of “what’s it like to come to a place struggling with racial discrimination where in Jamaica that had not been an issue,” Williams said, emphasizing that class conflict was a more prominent struggle in Jamaica at the time.
Despite her technologically ambitious undertaking, Williams said, “When I bought the video camera to do this project, it was the first time I ever used a video camera.” She said that by taking classes and getting tutored by her students on how to use the technology, she learned to empathize more with her students who come to her with different levels of knowledge.
Still, some of her students already see her as a compassionate and understanding teacher.
“Her greatest asset is that she leads by example,” sixth-year UNC doctoral student and one of Williams’ advisees Shannon Eaves said. “She doesn’t expect anything of you that she doesn’t also expect of herself.”
One of these expectations is creativity, which she says is her favorite part about teaching. In one of her classes, students participate in a mock trial, where she also employs her legal background. Before her ten-year-long professorship at the University of North Carolina’s Department of History, Williams practiced civil rights law and litigating. She found her passion in teaching at Saint Ann’s, the Brooklyn private school she attended after moving from Jamaica when she was 11 years old, which led her to pursue her PhD in history at Yale.
In a “Maymester” class, a three-week class over the summer at UNC, Williams brought students to Charleston, SC to experience first-hand the place where many slaves lived.
“One of the things that Heather has always conveyed to me that kept me motivated and going is that the stories of the people we’re studying are important and need to be told,” Eaves said. “Even when there were times when I wanted to give up, I remembered that if I didn’t keep going, this would be a story that someone would never know.”
Her colleague and department chair of History at UNC, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, recognized Williams’ unique talent for making her research relatable.
“She keeps her eye on the human dimension of the story,” Brundage said. “It makes what she talks about very poignant.”
Williams’ commitment to the lives of her students as well as the lives of her research subjects is also noteworthy. Mishio Yamanaka, a third-year graduate student at UNC who moved from Japan just before entering her graduate program, said that Williams helped her make the transition to life in the United States. When Yamanaka found it difficult to adjust, Williams, her advisor, suggested she find a non-academic hobby to enjoy, so Yamanaka took up biking.
“She did not only care about students’ academic ability, but also about students’ lives,” Yamanaka said.
At Penn, Williams said she is most excited to engage with students and the Philadelphia community. “Philadelphia will end up becoming a classroom for us,” she said. She also hopes to create an oral history project, similar to the one she is creating for her documentary, of the African Diaspora, a project that would be “something that is singular to Penn,” Savage said.
Although her colleague and advisees said they are sad to see her go, Williams is hopeful for her future at Penn.
“I’m leaving a place that I love and I’m going to a place where I have a lot of anticipation of loving it,” she said.