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
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
“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.