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Psychologist Robert L. Williams II, Wash U's Black Studies Founder, Dies At 90

Washington University Photographic Services Collection, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections
Robert L. Williams delivers remarks at the 2017 Trailblazers Recognition Ceremony and Black Faculty Reception at Washington University in 2017.

Robert Lee Williams II, founding director of Washington University’s Black Studies program, has died. He was 90.

Although his health declined in recent years, Williams did not let that stop him from continuing to expand on his research on the history of mental health and the development of psychological studies on Black people.

For many, Williams will be remembered as a noted scholar, a role model and one of the most talked-about African American men in the region. But to his students, colleagues and friends, he was more than that.

“He helped me to be patient with myself and patient with the adversity I would encounter in my own life,” said Vernon Mitchell Jr., a lecturer of American Culture Studies at Washington University and one of Williams' former students.

Williams started his career in psychology in 1955 at Arkansas State Hospital. He later left his hometown of Little Rock to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. After earning his doctorate in 1961, he served as assistant chief psychologist for the St. Louis Veterans Administration Hospital, from 1961 to 1966. Williams later worked in California and Washington state. He helped found the Association of Black Psychologists in 1968.

By the late '60s, Williams wanted to teach about psychology and the Black experience. He established Wash U’s Black Studies program in 1969, and a year later became a professor of psychology. During his tenure, he taught Black Psychology, the department’s most popular course.

Washington University Photographic Services Collection, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections
Washington University at St. Louis
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks met with Robert L. Williams II at Washington University and gave an Assembly Series Lecture, “The New Blacks: Poetry,” in 1970.

Williams was a professor, psychologist and program director and wrote scholarly articles. In the early '70s, he became widely known after creating his 100-question Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity — an examination to demonstrate that intelligence tests show racial and cultural biases. In 1973, he coined the term “Ebonics,” a combination of the terms ebony and phonics.

Colleagues describe Williams as a strong and nurturing man who commanded attention every time he walked into a space. He also will be remembered for his genuine spirit and guidance, said Gerald Early, chair of African and African American Studies at Washington University.

“He gave young scholars like myself a lot of inspiration and hope that I could be tenured because he was a tenured professor at Washington University, where at the time there weren't very many black professors,” said Early, who met Williams in 1981. “And so any point that you meet a Black person that was tenured, you had a lot of respect for that person.”

Early said Black students around campus gravitated toward Williams as well because he showed a deep interest in their career paths. Williams wanted his Black students to feel a sense of community at school, so he planned Afrocentric award ceremonies, where he offered libations and called up African ancestors.

Williams retired from Washington University in 1992. In retirement, he wrote books, scholarly papers and served as visitor professor and guest lecturer for a number of schools.

Mitchell met Williams in 2001 while taking his popular course Black Psychology at the University of Missouri. Williams was a visiting professor from 2001-04 and interim Black Studies director from 2002-03.

Mitchell immediately recognized Williams on the first day of class because he remembered him from an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show,” on which he talked about the term “ebonics.”

As a student, Mitchell said seeing Williams teach at a predominantly white university gave him confidence to continue on in academia.

“He did everything, I think, for me, and I'm sure some of my former classmates would say the same thing to cultivate a righteous mind,” said Mitchell, also Washington University’s Special Collections academic engagement programs manager. “He was able to tap in to us and provide a sense of both urgency, care and concern and confidence that allowed us to be our best selves as not just students, but student leaders. He expected us to be like him and do amazing things.”

Mitchell also spent time with Williams outside the classroom. He played golf with him a few times a week both in Columbia and in the St. Louis region.

“I think Dr. Williams definitely got his flowers while he lived, and I think for me, I want people to remember him for his humanity over his scholarship,” Mitchell said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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