All the students were white when George Williams walked into his first classroom at Beloit College more than two decades ago.
Williams immediately broke the ice.
“Yes, I am black,” he said.
He could feel the tension lift in the room.
For many students, Williams was the first black instructor they ever had.
Since 1999 when Williams moved to Beloit, he has achieved an impressive list of firsts, including becoming the first full-tenured African American professor at the college.
Along the way, he has demonstrated a steady commitment to social justice on campus and in the Beloit community.
The YWCA Rock County was set to present the 2020 Racial Justice Award to Williams on Saturday during a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at Blackhawk Technical College, but the event was canceled because of hazardous weather.
Cecil Youngblood, dean of students/chief diversity officer at Beloit College, nominated Williams.
“Professor George Williams, Jr., has continuously engaged in bridging the racial divide between the Beloit community and Beloit College…,” Youngblood wrote in the nomination form.
From the day Youngblood met Williams, “he brought with him a commitment to diversity and social change,” Youngblood said. “Almost immediately after he arrived on campus, he contacted my office and his words were simple: ‘How can I help?’”
Youngblood said Williams brought knowledge, energy and a “let’s-do-something-and-stop-talking attitude” to the work of social change.
He also called Williams “very direct,” especially when it pertains to efforts and questions about race, power and privilege.
At the same time, Williams is “a very caring person who has no ulterior motives in his work or his words,” Youngblood said. “This resonates and attracts people to him and compels us to listen and work with him.”
Two decades of firsts
Soon after arriving on campus to teach visual arts, Williams became the first black professor to chair a department. As chairman of the art and art history department, he worked with people to build bridges.
“I had to be accessible and approachable,” he said.
In 2000, he was part of a committee to diversify the teaching staff.
“Beloit College was not a very diverse community at the time,” Williams said. “Housekeeping was the most diverse group on campus.”
The committee brought in a full spectrum of qualified doctoral candidates who were not only racially diverse, but also were diverse in their disciplines.
“Some people’s eyes were opened,” Williams said.
In 2004, Williams became the first tenured black professor in the history of the college, which was founded in 1846.
“I always tell people I shouldn’t have been the first,” he said. “There were others before me who should have been.”
In the same year, he became the first black professor to speak at a Beloit College convocation.
“My subject was racial justice, and I talked about how the campus had to change and diversify,” he said.
He emphasized that diversity is a strength, not a weakness.
Williams is unafraid to speak what he feels.
“If you speak your truth, you can live with yourself, and you can sleep at night,” he explained.
Because he is tenured, he voices the opinions of others on campus and in the community who do not speak as freely.
“When I first met people in the community, I did not tell them I was a professor at the college right away,” Williams said. “I wanted them to get to know me as a person first. I felt the title would be a barrier. I wanted to know how they felt about the college. Then I shared what they said with the college.”
He added: “Saying what is difficult brings about change.”
In 2010, Williams achieved full tenure and was the first black professor to do so.
The same year, he was the first black professor to serve as graduation marshal.
His attempts to bring dignity to all people reached into the community, as well.
During the past decade, Williams has taught college writing to students from Beloit Memorial, South Beloit and Beloit Turner high schools.
“We get them to be critical thinkers,” he said.
Williams also co-founded Academic Pathways, a mentoring and tutoring community-based program for students of all ages who needed help with academics and literacy.
Beloit College students and Beloit residents tutored students in the former program.
“My intentions are to build strong coalitions among people,” Williams said.
A better life
Williams moved to Wisconsin from Southern California with his wife, Shirley, and young family to improve his quality of life. He was working at four different colleges and, because of long hours, thought his young children didn’t know him well.
“In one year, I spent four months of my life in a car,” Williams said of the traffic congestion that plagues Southern California.
He teaches both traditional painting and drawing and nontraditional graphic design. Williams also paints and shows his works at galleries and museums.
He includes the multicultural voices of philosophers and artists in his classes.
“We go across disciplines so people can see themselves in those spaces,” he said.
Williams said the college has made strides in bringing diversity to campus among professors and the staff.
“We have progressed in many different ways,” he said.
He looks forward to more diversity initiatives.
Williams works daily in an office where he keeps posters and photos on the wall of people who inspire and remind him of the greater good.
Included are photos of Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who are giving raised-fist salutes after the 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.
The athletes used their medal wins as an opportunity to advocate for racial pride and social consciousness about inequality in their country. The International Olympic Committee president called the action during the national anthem inappropriate and suspended the athletes from the USA team.
Williams was only a child when he saw the men on TV, but he never forgot the impact on him.
“Even as a 10-year-old, I knew what these men were sacrificing,” he said. “I realized where there is injustice, you need to stand up to it, regardless of the price.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.