J. Allen Williams, Jr.
J. Allen Williams, Jr. (B.A. 1958, Ph.D. 1963)
Having been born in Durham and growing up in Chapel Hill, the choice of UNC for my university education was essentially taken for granted. The decision was even easier since my father graduated from UNC and was an administrator, primarily as an attorney, for UNC. His office was in South Building. My mother also had a degree from UNC and I grew up hearing about their experiences and love for the university.
My education at UNC began in 1954. Like many new students one of the first things I thought about was joining a fraternity. I began thinking primarily about the one my father had been in, but I ended up choosing St. Anthony Hall. I was very impressed by their interests in the academic side of the university. Of course that doesn’t mean academic work was my only interest. For example, another freshman in my pledge class, Wally Kuralt, and I drove to New York City to visit his brother Charley who was affiliated with CBS and had developed a program entitled On the Road. Charley took us to a jazz place called Birdland and we listened to a wonderful singer named Ella Fitzgerald, who in fact was well known for her recording of a song entitled Lullaby of Birdland. I should mention that during my undergraduate years my fraternity had the highest academic standing among all of the fraternities.
My choice of a major was not quite as easy. As far back as elementary school I had been questioning some of the dominant beliefs in my environment. One that stood out was the realization both through experience and reasoning that African Americans are simply people, neither inferior nor superior to other people. I vividly recall when I raised my hand during a discussion in a civics class in the seventh grade and expressed this view. One student, with a look of hatred on his face, lifted his desk as if to throw it at me and called me a “N… Lover.” My response was, “No, I’m a human being lover.” Some other students, a bit more politely, disagreed with my position. However, one student defended me. Years later when I was taking a course from her father, Dr. Alfred Brauer, a university mathematics professor, and was thinking back to that day in my civics class it dawned on me why his daughter probably supported me. I remembered when she joined our class in the first grade the teacher explained that her family had escaped from Germany. She was Jewish and must have personally understood what prejudice toward people felt like.
In August 1955, a fourteen-year old African American boy, Emmett Till, was kidnapped, mutilated, and killed in Mississippi. They said he had whistled at a white woman. I became determined to actually do something about the prejudice, discrimination, and even murder all around me. At first I thought I could do it best as a lawyer but after learning about the scientific study of race and ethnic relations when I took my first class in sociology as a college sophomore, I changed my plans. I was going to be a sociologist.
I have wonderful memories of the sociology faculty during my years as an undergraduate student. One of the department members that stands out in my memory is Daniel O. Price the Director of the Institute for Research in Social Science. Others include Rupert Vance, Charles Bowerman, Dick Simpson, and Guy Johnson.
Apart from graduating from UNC with a major in sociology I am proud of having become a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1957 and of being awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1958. The Fellowship provided enough financial support to be able to enroll in Cornell University’s graduate program in sociology. I selected Cornell because it had one of the best professors, Dr. Robin Williams, and programs in my chosen area of concentration, i.e., race and ethnic relations. I also had learned that Professor Williams was from Hillsboro, North Carolina and thus I was reasonably certain he really understood the way African Americans were still being treated in the South. A year and an M.A. later I was pleasantly surprised to receive an offer from Dr. Daniel O. Price for a research assistantship in the Sociology graduate program at UNC. The grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that would support my assistantship was to help in a study called “The changing position of the Negro in the South.” Despite liking the program and faculty at Cornell, this offer was too good to turn down.
It wasn’t long after returning to the Southland that “the changing position of the Negro” became very real for me. On February 1, 1960, four students at North Carolina A&T College, an all-black school in Greensboro, walked into Woolworth’s department store, sat down at the “whites-only” lunch counter and asked to be served. They were refused service by the waitress and taunted by white customers. A fellow graduate student, Paul Wehr, and I drove to Greensboro the next day and met with the students. As I recall, the students were very friendly and glad we had come in support of their efforts. One of the students told us he was from the North and not used to segregation. He had unthinkingly sat down at the lunch counter, realized where he was and immediately felt embarrassed and angry. When he returned to his dormitory he described the incident to his friends. One of the students said, “Let’s all go down there tomorrow and sit down.” When they went to the department store they made sure to buy something before sitting at the lunch counter. When told by the waitress, “We don’t serve colored here,” they showed her what they had purchased in the store and said, “Sure you do, we just bought this.” As they expected, they were still refused service. Returning to school, they told their friends and put up a notice on the bulletin board encouraging another sit-in. The next day they were accompanied by 19 more students and the day after that 85 students participated. The number of protesters was reported to have reached 400 before the end of the week. Students went in shifts so that no one would miss class. The events made southern newspapers, and sit-ins began to occur in cities throughout the state and even in Virginia and Tennessee.
Paul and I along with some other sociology graduate students attended an outdoor rally at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), then an all-black school in Durham where several hundred students listened to student organizers from several schools and cheered. Some of us also met with students at Shaw College, an all-black school in Raleigh, and watched how a sit-in was organized. They made sure that students were well dressed and understood that this was to be a non-violent protest. Students were instructed to call immediately if any trouble occurred. We then went with students to a sit-in at Walgreens where they refused service. I’ll never forget the store’s slogan posted on the wall near the entrance, “You are Always Welcome at Walgreens.”
Several weeks later I attended a meeting at a church in Durham of student protestors from several universities. We were joined by representatives from the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Dr. Martin Luther King was there. He told the students that while protests should be non-violent, to go ahead and fill up the jails. He suggested that there would be so many they wouldn’t know what to do with them. Students were assured by members of the NAACP that their attorneys would always be there to provide legal assistance.
Within a year, in addition to sit-ins, other forms of non-violent protests, such as marches and “freedom rides,” began occurring throughout the South. We were joined by students, many of whom were white, from across the nation. Hundreds of us, both Anglo and African Americans of all ages, marched around the state capitol in Raleigh. I remember being very proud of all those students, especially fellow UNC students, who had taken considerable risks to protest.
My first publication in a sociology journal was in 1961. The article, based on research that a young faculty member in the sociology department, Ruth Searles, and I did was entitled, “Negro College Students’ Participation in Sit-Ins.” It was published in Social Forces.
Other accomplishments while a graduate student at UNC were obtaining a Public Health Service Fellowship in 1962 and the Bobbs-Merrill Award, “Outstanding Graduate Student, University of North Carolina” in 1963, the same year I received my Ph.D.
It would be impossible to exaggerate how much I appreciated, enjoyed, and benefitted from my education at the University of North Carolina.
After graduation I received an invitation from Tom Barth, who had earned his Ph.D. at UNC in 1955, to join the sociology department faculty at the University of Washington. His primary area was race and community relations. I accepted the offer and very much liked UW and the faculty members in the sociology department. And, I managed to have a paper ready for presentation at my first meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association. The paper, “Reduction of Tension Through Intergroup Contact: A Social Psychological Interpretation.” was published in the Pacific Sociological Review.
In the spring of 1965 I was invited by Charles “Chuck” Bonjean, who had been a fellow graduate student and good friend at UNC, to visit the sociology department at the University of Texas to be considered for a faculty position. Chuck had become a faculty member at UT in 1963. Austin seemed like a wonderful place to live and the fact that Texas had an interesting mix of ethnic groups made it appear to offer a great opportunity for doing research in my primary area of interest. Although I was a bit concerned about what the students would be like, I needn’t have worried. For the most part they were good students and very interested in the subject matter of the courses I taught.
One of the most interesting and useful things that I accomplished while at UT was helping to protect a relatively large African American population living in an area in Austin known as Blackshear. I had learned that the area was threatened by a proposed redevelopment plan to be carried out by the Urban Renewal Agency. Through our research we found that the plan would create serious problems for many of the residents. Not only would the community be broken up, but many people would be moved farther away from schools, churches, and public transportation. Persons who were ill or elderly would most likely be moved away from family or neighbors who care for them and many would be financially worse off. I worked with a number of African American students who were in my classes and they helped us meet community leaders in the Blackshear area. We found that no desegregation would be accomplished. In fact, the plan for removing people from Blackshear was to make the area into a shopping center and persons who would profit financially (especially those in banking and real estate) were the ones pushing the project. After much effort, such as explaining to the Urban Renewal Agency why the plan would have harmful consequences we were unable to get the plan changed. Fortunately a young woman in the UT Law School contacted us and volunteered to help. At the close of a long trial, the decision was to not allow the project.
I gained tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1967. Also, I managed to have 10 publications in sociology journals between 1966 and 1970, two with Chuck and one with Tom Barth who was still at UW. One of the papers I was most proud of was a study published in the Social Science Quarterly in 1969 entitled “The Effects of Urban Renewal Upon a Black Community: Evaluation and Recommendations.”
In 1970 I visited a friend who was in the sociology department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Three members of the department, Clyde Nunn, High Whitt, and Harry Crockett, had been at UNC. Not only did I enjoy meeting with people in the department, but also several of us went on a tour of Lincoln. Apart perhaps from Chapel Hill, Lincoln was to me one of the nicest places I had ever visited. Suffice it to say that I felt like this was definitely the place where I wanted to live. Although perhaps a bit fearful about my rather quick choice, I asked if perhaps the department might have an open position and, if so, I was interested. Shortly after returning to Austin I received an invitation to return to UNL for a possible position in the sociology department. I drove to Lincoln, was offered a position, and I accepted.
I have lived in Lincoln for the last 48 years and in addition to courses in race and ethnic relations I taught courses in such areas as family, research methods, criminology, social problems, and theory. I was promoted to full professor in 1972 and had 24 publications between 1971 and 2012. One of these was a book coauthored with Clyde Nunn and Harry Crockett, Tolerance for Nonconformity. Ten of my publications dealt with issues associated with race and ethnic relations. In 1979 I received an Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Beginning in the 1980s I became increasingly worried about environmental issues and set about learning all that I could on the subject. I remembered there were professors in Sociology at UNC who taught courses that included environmental issues. Since I had a sabbatical leave coming up I decided to go back to Chapel Hill and audit some courses. My wife and I drove to Chapel Hill. In addition to auditing several courses we attended a national environmental conference “Threshold”, which was held in Memorial Hall on the UNC campus. It was reported that more than 1,700 students from 48 states attended. Later I learned that a group of UNC students put an ad in Greenpeace magazine inviting students to join them in an effort to “save the planet.” These students are reported to have been responsible for the creation of the national Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). When I returned to Lincoln I began teaching courses in Environmental Sociology and I received a first place award for an Independent Study Course in national competition by the National University Continuing Education Association in 1984.
I had five publications on environmental issues beginning in 1991. I became the Director of the UNL Environmental Studies Program in 1992. However, in 1997 I had to leave this position to be the Chair of the Sociology Department. I served as Chair until 2005. I retired in 2010 but taught some courses until 2014.
I have four grown children. My daughter, Martha, lives in Albany, NY. She has a degree in sociology and is the Principal Administrative Analyst for the New York State Police. I have three sons. Jim, lives in Venice, CA where he is a computer technician. John lives in Switzerland and works in Learning and Development as Team Lead Pharma Development Quality. David lives in Lincoln, NE and is a Project Manager for IBM. So far I have five wonderful grandchildren.
My wife, Rebecca, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to find and purchase a little over 17 acres of land in Nebraska where we have built a home. About 14 acres of the land is native forest and most of the rest is tall grass prairie. Our goal is that one day this land will be protected by a conservation easement. In the meantime we are greatly enjoying the beauty of this wonderful ecosystem which has a large variety of animals and plants. As examples, I have identified over 100 species of birds and we see deer nearly every day.