First of Many

April 6, 2016
Preston Williams portrait
HDS professor Preston Williams has been named a 2016 Gomes Honoree. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Preston Williams has often been first: the first tenured African American member of the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) faculty; the first African American president of the Society of Christian Ethics; the founding director of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute.

When he talks about his 60 year career, however, Williams focuses not on the fact that he was first, but on the fact that he was not alone.

"I've worked with others—students, colleagues, administrators—to enlarge the possibilities of participation in higher education for non-white peoples," he says. "Sometimes, the responses you get are not the ones you would really like to have, but a step forward is a step forward. I just try to draw attention to the gaps."

As HDS's Houghton Research Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change, Williams has spent a lifetime working to bridge opportunity gaps for people of color in the academic world. His scholarship has illuminated the history and impact of racism on the bodies, minds, and souls of black folk—and many others. His extracurricular activities have helped pave the way for the many students and scholars who came after him. In recognition of these contributions, the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council has named Williams a 2016 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.  

Though he may have spent his life at colleges and universities, the issue of race is far from merely academic to Williams. He grew up with racism in his hometown of Homestead, Pennsylvania, where his family lived among white immigrants and Williams was only one of a handful of black children in his school.

"I remember that the United States Steel company canceled a picnic for all workers because white workers wanted segregation," he says. "You couldn't go in the swimming pools if you were an African American. I lived in an integrated neighborhood. I went to integrated schools. But my whole life was surrounded by racism."

Williams' mother was a Sunday school teacher for nearly 25 years at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. His father was an elder there and came from a long line of Presbyterians that stretched back to the establishment of the Westminster Church in South Carolina just after the Civil War. It's no surprise, then, that Williams decided when he was still a child to put the study of religion at the center of his life.

"I grew up in the church," he says. "I decided at about eight years of age that I was going to go into the ministry, and there was only one change in that; instead of becoming a pastor, I got involved with colleges and universities. That was due to suggestions of my seminary professors."

After getting his bachelor's and master's degrees from Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, Williams enrolled at Johnson C. Smith, a historically black seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Although he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college and was admitted to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, he says that personal history pulled him south.

"My family was from South Carolina," he explains. "We owned land there. My brother and I still own land in South Carolina, which has been in the family since the days of slavery. So, I went south and joined the family."

Preston Williams at portrait unveiling
HDS unveiled a portrait of Preston Williams on August 30, 2011. Here, Williams unwraps a smaller version of the portrait as then Dean William A. Graham looks on. / Photo: Steve Gilbert


After graduation and ordination, Williams decided to head north and further his studies at Yale Divinity School. Then came a teaching career that led south to historically black colleges in Tennessee and North Carolina and back home to Pennsylvania. Around the same time, African Americans across the south were organizing and mobilizing for civil rights with renewed vigor—bolstered in part by a series of Supreme Court decisions mandating desegregation. Williams determined to play a part in the movement through his work in academia.

"I've been active in civil rights, but I'm not a marcher," he says. "I encouraged students that I encountered during this period to keep going with their education. I also worked with students to form organizations that broke down segregation at Pennsylvania State University, where I served as chaplain and teacher and was the first African American academic appointment."

After six years in academic ministry, Williams entered the doctoral program at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. When he was done with his examinations in 1966, he accepted a position at Boston University, eventually becoming the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Social Ethics in 1970. He held that position for only a year, however, before Harvard offered him tenure on the Divinity School faculty in 1971. Williams found that his colleagues knew relatively little about the African American experience.

"HDS Dean Krister Stendahl [who grew up in Sweden] once told me that he never saw a black person until he was 19 years of age, and he saw that black person in Africa," Williams remembers. "He worked diligently to understand and mitigate the American dilemma."

Friends and colleagues say that it's hard to overestimate the impact of Williams' arrival not only on HDS, but also throughout the University.

"When Preston came, there were essentially no African American faculty throughout the University," remembered longtime friend and Harvard College admissions officer David Evans in 2012. "He extended himself to students on the undergraduate level and otherwise, and we are the better for that."

Only three years after joining the Faculty of Divinity, Williams became the first African American to lead HDS when he was appointed interim dean during Dean Stendahl's leave of absence (1974-75). Shortly afterwards, he was tapped to establish Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African American Studies. Williams capped off a decade of achievement at Harvard when he stepped into the role of chairman of the Divinity School's department of ethics from 1977-1980. During those years—and in the decades that followed—he did all he could to open HDS to scholars and students of color and their perspectives.

"One of the things that I did was to get African religions included at the Center for the Study of World Religions," he remembers. "Director Wilfred Cantwell Smith and some of his disciples didn't recognize African religions because they were not considered to have a written scripture. So John Carman and I made the trips to Africa and brought African scholars over here."

In the 1990s, Williams reached out to communities across the country as director of the School's Summer Leadership Institute (SLI). The program, offered in conjunction with the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, enabled pastors and organizers to "benefit from the latest economic-development planning and implementation methods" and "combine reflection and action for the public good."

"The SLI was established in part as a response to the riots in California after the Rodney King incident, and also in response Henry Cisneros, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to create a faith based division at HUD during an HDS black alumni conference," Williams remembers. "Faith-based development work in the African American community had mostly been carried out by individual entrepreneurs, so there was a strong need to network and institutionalize those efforts." 

Williams was active outside of Harvard as well. In 1974, he helped found the Northeast Seminar for Black Religion with colleagues from Amherst, Princeton, Yale, and elsewhere. He served as only the second African American president of the American Academy of Religion, where he established the first unit to study African American religious history and held the first plenary session on African religion. Williams also served as an editor at large of one of the country's leading ecumenical magazines—to the good-natured chagrin of HDS colleague Harvey Cox.  

"I'm envious that Preston was an editor of The Christian Century, and I never was," Cox joked at a 2011 tribute to Williams. "If I had been, I probably would have recruited more friendly reviews for my books from the journal!"

Today, nearly 50 years after receiving his PhD, Williams is still making a difference at HDS. It was he who introduced the artist Susan Swartz to his colleagues at the School and helped bring her to campus for a week in residence. That intervention led in 2012 to the Susan Shallcross Swartz Endowment, a $10M gift that extended the School's work in Christian studies.

"The Swartz Endowment will enable HDS to continue to bring to campus the leading scholars and thinkers in this field, as well as the talented students that they attract," says Dean David Hempton. "Without Preston's help, the School might not have this critical resource."

Though an emeritus professor, Williams still teaches an HDS course on the ethical and religious thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. There, he challenges students to see racism as "a white problem, not a black problem," and to confront the way it continues to permeate American society. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

"King stresses that what we want is freedom," he says, "and freedom involves making choices. Now, people don't always make the choices you would like for them to make. They go their own way. Their route is circuitous. But it's a right route, and if they have to go through those things to work out their theology, fine."

—by Paul Massari