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Gregory H. Williams

Gregory Howard Williams was born on November 12, 1943 in Indiana. At the age of ten, Williams moved from Virginia to the Black housing projects of Muncie, Indiana, where he became aware of his father’s African American heritage for the first time. Despite a period of confusion about his identity, he drew on his father’s passion for education to give him strength during a challenging time in his life.

Williams graduated from Ball State University. He paid for school by working as a deputy sheriff often for more than forty hours a week. Williams then attended George Washington University, earning both his J.D. and Ph.D. degrees.

In 1993, Williams became the Dean of Law and Carter C. Kissell Professor of Law at The Ohio State University and managed to shift the school effectively, increasing both fund raising and national rankings. In 2001, just before Williams left Ohio State University, it became the recipient of the largest gift ever given to the university when Michael E. Moritz, a partner of the Baker and Hostettler firm, donated $30 million to help Ohio State College of Law become a top ten law school nationally.

In 1995, Williams published Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black¸ an autobiography. The Los Angeles Times selected it “Book of the Year,” and Williams was soon featured on television and radio, including Dateline NBC, Larry King Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Nightline and National Public Radio. The following year, the Gustavus Myers Center for Human Rights in North America selected Life on the Color Line as an Outstanding Book on the Subject of Human Rights.

In 1998, Williams was invited by President Bill Clinton to join Clinton’s “Call to Action” to promote law office diversity and pro bono work. The following year, Williams was chosen by the National Association of Public Interest Law as “Dean of the Year,” and he was awarded the National Bar Association’s A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Award for Contributions to the Preservation of Human and Civil Rights. In 2001, Williams became The City College of New York’s eleventh president. Under Williams, the college increased its enrollment, and maintained its diversity even under more rigorous admission standards. He successfully held the College’s first capital campaign, raising more than $230 million. Williams serves as Chair of the Commission on Access, Diversity and Excellence (CADE) of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Williams was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on May 16, 2007.

Accession Number

A2007.176

Sex

Male

Interview Date

5/16/2007

Last Name

Williams

Maker Category
Middle Name

H.

Schools

Garfield Elementary School

University of Maryland

Ball State University

George Washington University Law School

Muncie Central High School

First Name

Gregory

Birth City, State, Country

Muncie

HM ID

WIL38

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Indiana

Favorite Quote

Transformative Power Of Higher Education

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Ohio

Interview Description
Birth Date

11/12/1943

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Cincinnati

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Barbecue Ribs

Short Description

Academic administrator and lawyer Gregory H. Williams (1943 - ) served as chair of the Commission on Access, Diversity and Excellence (CADE) of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. He was the president of New York City College, and the author of, "Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black."

Employment

Muncie Police Department

Public Schools of the District of Columbia

University of Iowa

City College of New York

The Ohio State University

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466183">Tape: 1 Slating of Gregory H. Williams' interview</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466184">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams lists his favorites</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466185">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams recalls Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466186">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his mother's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466187">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams talks about the origin of his name</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466188">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his father's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466189">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his father's education</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466190">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his father's time at Howard University</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466191">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams recalls his father's relationship with Alain LeRoy Locke</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466192">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his father's experiences with the Ku Klux Klan</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466193">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his father</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466194">Tape: 1 Gregory H. Williams describes his earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466195">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams remembers the Open House Cafe in Gum Springs, Virginia</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466196">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams describes his homes in Alexandria, Virginia</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466197">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams describes the founding of the Open House Cafe</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466198">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams talks about passing for white as a child</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466199">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams describes his early awareness of racial discrimination</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466200">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams recalls living with his maternal grandparents in Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466201">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466202">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams describes his younger brother</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466203">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams recalls his father's entrepreneurship</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466204">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams remembers his parents' relationship</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466205">Tape: 2 Gregory H. Williams remembers meeting his African American family</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466206">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams describes his early interests</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466207">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams recalls holiday traditions</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466208">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams describes the neighborhood of Gum Springs in Alexandria, Virginia</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466209">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams remembers when his mother left his father</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466210">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams recalls his family life after his mother's departure</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466211">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams talks about his father's breakdown</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466212">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams remembers learning about his African ancestry</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466213">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams remembers meeting his aunt, Bess Pharris</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466214">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams describes how he was received by his paternal family</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466215">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams describes the initial confusion about his racial identity in Muncie, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466216">Tape: 3 Gregory H. Williams recalls his acceptance into Muncie's African American community</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466217">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams remembers moving in with his paternal grandmother</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466218">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams remembers his father's return to Muncie, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466219">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams describes his grandmother's boyfriend</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466220">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams remembers being taken into the care of Dora Terry Smith</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466221">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams recalls his father's positive influence</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466222">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams describes the black community in Muncie, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466223">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams remembers Garfield Elementary School in Muncie, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466224">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams describes his interactions with white teachers</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466225">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams describes his relationship with his father</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466226">Tape: 4 Gregory H. Williams remembers the support of his foster mother</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466227">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams talks about his friend, Brian Settles</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466228">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams recalls his influences during high school</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466229">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams describes the pressure on him as a teenager</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466230">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams remembers Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466231">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams remembers working as a deputy sheriff</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466232">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams describes lessons from his time as a deputy sheriff</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466233">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams recalls experiencing discrimination as a deputy sheriff</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466234">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams recalls his graduation from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466235">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams recalls his first white girlfriend</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466236">Tape: 5 Gregory H. Williams remembers being contacted by his mother</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466237">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams recalls his reunion with his mother</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466238">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams recalls living with his mother</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466239">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams describes his siblings' lives in Annandale, Virginia</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466240">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams recalls hiding his racial identity from his stepfather</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466241">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams recalls rekindling his relationship with Sara Whitney Williams</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466242">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams recalls attending George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466243">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams describes his start in politics</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466244">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams remembers serving as a legislative assistant</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466245">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams recalls directing the GW-Washington Project</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466246">Tape: 6 Gregory H. Williams describes his role at the GW-Washington Project</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466247">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams recalls working at the University of Iowa in Iowa City</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466248">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams remembers increasing minority enrollment at the University of Iowa</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466249">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams recalls his publications at University of Iowa</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466250">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams describes his decision to write 'Life on The Color Line'</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466251">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams remembers writing 'Life on The Color Line'</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466252">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams recalls his professional goals</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466253">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams recalls being hired at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466254">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams remembers working at The Ohio State University</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466255">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams describes the culture of The Ohio State University</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466256">Tape: 7 Gregory H. Williams remembers the release of 'Life on The Color Line'</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466257">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams talks about his interest in pro-bono legal service</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466258">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams recalls Michael Moritz's gift to The Ohio State University</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466259">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams remembers Michael Moritz's death</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466260">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams recalls his desire to work at The City College of New York</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466261">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams recalls success stories from The City College of New York</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466262">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams describes his challenges at The City College of New York</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466263">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams talks about fundraising at The City College of New York</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466264">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams describes his hopes for The City College of New York</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466265">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams remembers adopting his twin sons</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466266">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams reflects upon his legacy</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/466267">Tape: 8 Gregory H. Williams talks about his loyalty to the African American community</a>

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

7$10

DATitle
Gregory H. Williams remembers learning about his African ancestry
Gregory H. Williams remembers the support of his foster mother
Transcript
You're saying as you were dr- driving, that's when he [Williams' father, James Williams] told you.$$That's when he told us. We were on the bus, we were on the Greyhound bus--$$I--I, yeah, that's fine.$$--you know headed, headed back to Muncie [Indiana]. And see my brother [Mike Williams] and I, like I said, we were starving. We were literally starving. And actually I guess as you read my book ['Life on The Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black,' Gregory Howard Williams], you'll see there's a lot of allusions to food. In fact I've had some people say well after reading your book, I wanted to come over and cook for you. I wanted to bring groceries for this little starving kid. And you know I did think it had--you know it stunted my growth to a certain extent and my, my development. But, but so we were just, we were looking for some kind of relief from this just, just, just rapid falling into the abyss after my mother [Mary Williams] left and after we lost everything. So we thought we were going to go and live with my [maternal] white grandparents then because we knew that we're gonna eat there. And was probably gonna be stable. And so that was a real attractive thing for us. But it was about midway in the trip and I've tried to always figure out where that was. And, and the best I can figure it out, somewhere between Columbus, Ohio and Dayton, Ohio. And it was very ironic that, you know, basically fifty years later I became dean of The Ohio State law school [The Ohio State University College of Law; Michael E. Moritz College of Law] in Columbus [Ohio]. But when Dad told us the story and said look, he asked us if I remembered Miss Sallie [Sallie Higginbotham Williams] and I had met her, she'd been at the restaurant [Open House Cafe, Gum Springs, Virginia] and you know actually I remember I'd been introduced to her in Indiana because from time to time when we would go to Indiana, my mother would take me by this little diner in Indiana and tell me to go up and knock on the door and ask for Sallie. And so I would go up and knock on the door and ask for Sallie and she'd come out. And you know they never told me who she was. She would just come out and see us, and then we'd go off. I never paid any attention to that. And then she was in Virginia for a period of time, you know, working as, as the cook there. And he said, he said, "Well do you remember Miss Sallie?" And I said, "Yeah, I remember her." And some--I remember her and my dad said, "Well that's my grandmother. And--," I'm sorry, "that's my mother and that's your grandmother." And then this was 1954. He said, "In Virginia you're white boys, but in Indiana you're gonna be colored boys. And your life is gonna be different, but you're just gonna have to learn how to deal with it. That's because we don't have anything else to go to or anything else to help us." So I knew immediately because I had seen the segregated schools and I had seen the way that blacks were treated, but it never really resonated with me that one day that I would be treated the same way. But I immediately on the bus realized my life's gone be different.$$So here you're--so okay that's what I'm--you know psychologically what is happening because you know you're--how--all of a sudden you're one thing, and then you're another.$$Right.$$I mean that takes--it's one to hear it, it's another to experience it. But what you saw and experienced wasn't anything like--I mean you had seen it, but you hadn't been a part of it.$$I had seen it, but I'd not been a part of it, you know and it just didn't really register with me. You know I mean our--I guess maybe I said wow, that doesn't seem right, you know, and that's not nice. But it didn't mean anything to me because here I am, the son of Tony Williams, the owner of the Open House Cafe [Alexandria, Virginia], the captain of industry in the, in the northern Virginia area. I mean a man who could do anything in the world and convinced me that he had the ability to change whatever he wanted to change, or to do whatever he wanted to do. I mean I didn't, I didn't worry about that 'cause I had confidence in my dad and his abilities.$I remember you saying she wasn't--these are not the exact words, but she wasn't emotionally avail- I mean she, she was caring but to a point. She wasn't (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, she was caring. You know I mean and she cared about us, I have no doubt about that.$$She wasn't demonstrative.$$She wasn't really demonstrative. My mother was certainly have not been demonstrative as well. But I mean she cared about us. But she was, you know she didn't put her arm around my shoulder, but I mean if I needed help, she would, she would always be there. I never, I never had to worry about that. But she was not really demonstrative. I don't think she really realized what we were going through. I was very reluctant to share that with her because you know I didn't wanna tell her how much I missed my mother [Mary Williams]; how much I missed my sister [Rita Chiles] and brother [Rick Williams (ph.)]. Because she'd been there when everybody else had left us. And so why--I'm not gonna tell her that well you know I appreciate what you're doing, but I really miss my family. And so I didn't want to, I didn't wanna make her feel bad because of all the sacrifices that she had made for us. And she made enormous sacrifices for us. And what's really interesting about it is that the church [Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Church; Christ Temple Global Ministries, Muncie, Indiana], all these brothers and sisters in the church, they were not supportive of her. They would come and say, "Well what are you doing taking these two little white boys in? They've got the grandmother [Sallie Higginbotham Williams] and they've got a father. They're just drunks. They should be taking care of these kids themselves, and why you old widow woman, you know, not making any money. Why are you taking this on?" And I remember when ultimately she got married when I was about in the tenth grade [at Muncie Central High School, Muncie, Indiana]. And so I remember sitting in the other room, sitting in the kitchen, listening her, her fiance talk to her. And he, he--his wife had died, actually it was her best friend's husband and he--the woman had died, Nettie [ph.] had died. And so A.D. Smith [ph.] was there and said, "Well I don't understand why you're taking care of these boys." Again, you know, they got somebody to take care of 'em. And I remember her saying, I remember hearing this. She said, "Look A.D., those boys were here when you got here, and they gone be here when you're gone. And if you can't handle that, then there's no reason for us to get married." Now what was interesting about that is she was about ready to retire. She had no income. I mean she was gonna get maybe a little social security check. But by being married to A.D., and that was his--that's the thing he had to offer. Is if she was his wife, she would get his social security the rest of her life after A.D. died. And so she was willing to give that up if it came down to us or that social security check, or then, or the retirement check that she was gonna be able to get. I thought whoa, this is the woman who believes in me. And actually as ironically, I remember coming home one day after I was playing basketball. And I saw all the church elders in front, and I saw the morticians, kind of the ambulance or what do you call, the hearse. I saw the hearse in front of the house. And I said my God, I hope Miss Dora [Dora Terry Smith] has not died. And so I walk in there and you can't believe the relief when I saw her setting up and A.D. had died. You know I said thank you, Jesus because it was, it would have been very hard for us. 'Cause that meant we would go back to the alley. 'Cause 601 1/2 Railroad Street was really right on the all-. I said we go back to the alley, who knows what would happen to us. But so she was right, we were there when A.D. got there and we were there when he left.