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Williams brings history to life


No one individual better symbolizes UNF’s dual roles academically and in the community than Carolyn Williams, an accomplished historian at the forefront of several important Jacksonville history projects.


Williams, a recently retired UNF history professor, is the latest in a string of outstanding UNF historians who have made significant contributions to the community while enhancing graduate and undergraduate education at the University. Williams, however, has carved out a community niche like few others by specializing in Jacksonville’s African-American history and local history.


One project in particular is close to her heart — the Durkeeville Historical Society. A modest building on West 19th Street in Jacksonville has captured the history of the neighborhood in which Williams grew up. Named after a Civil War soldier who went on to become an early sheriff of Jacksonville and was elected to the Florida Legislature, Durkeeville was founded in the 1930s when African-Americans were barred from living in many parts of the city. Williams led a dedicated group of volunteers who have collected the history of what it was like growing up in a segregated Jacksonville. “They are not trained historians but they’ve done a wonderful job of interviewing residents and collecting artifacts,” she said.


Lloyd Washington, who succeeded Williams as president of the Durkeeville Historical Society, says the UNF historian is a blessing to the society and the greater Jacksonville community. “She helped plan and design our building and made sure all the information we presented was accurate,” he said. “She loves history and when you sit down and talk with her, it’s like taking a trip back in time to the way Jacksonville was years ago.”


Williams describes her childhood in Jacksonville as “pretty much growing up in an all-black world.” It wasn’t until she enrolled at Bishop Kenny High School that she had any extensive contact with whites.


When she left Jacksonville for California, her world drastically changed. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Immaculate Heart College in 1970 and returned to Jacksonville to earn a bachelor’s degree in history in 1975 from UNF.


By that time, Jacksonville was a different city with much greater access for blacks to desegregated education. “UNF was open and it had black faculty members and black students, unheard of only 10 years earlier,” she said.


Williams left Jacksonville again to get her master’s degree at the University of California at San Diego and a doctorate from the University of California at Los Angeles. She returned to Jacksonville primarily to help care for her aging parents and obtained a part-time job teaching at UNF.


When a tenure-track position became available in the History Department, she caught the eye of Dr. David Courtwright, then the department chair.


“My colleagues and I knew she would work well with our students. The fact that she was a Jacksonville native was a plus,” Courtwright said. “What none of us knew at the time was that Carolyn would develop such an interest in local history. That she acquired local and regional expertise was a real bonus for our department, our students and our community.”


Thousands of students have benefited from Williams’ expertise over the years. She has taught many courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels, including late 18th- and early 19th-century American history, women’s history and the history of American religion.


Williams said she has particularly treasured working with graduate teaching assistants in the department. “It’s been personally very rewarding working with such talented graduate assistants.”


Dale Clifford, the current chair of the History Department, praises Williams for her role in developing public history in the community. ”She has been incredibly effective developing internships with community organizations and helping them to preserve their histories for future generations,” she said.


While she is active in state and local history groups, Williams also has helped other organizations such as the UNF Alumni Association where she was first a faculty representative and then served as a board member beginning in 2005. “Carolyn is the consummate volunteer, dedicated and always sharing her personal and professional time whenever asked,” said Faith Hall, director of Alumni Services at UNF.


Even though a recent illness has robbed her of much of her stamina, forcing her to retire, Williams said she is looking forward to other projects. She wants to put together another pictorial history book, this one focusing in the African-American areas of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine. It would compliment a popular pictorial history book she compiled of early Jacksonville photos. Williams also maintains a strong interest in oral history and hopes to work with UNF's Florida Institute of Education on a project targeting certain Jacksonville neighborhoods.


In all of these projects, her love of local history is apparent. It’s a love sure to leave a lasting legacy for Jacksonville.