Williams, Frederick B.
Frederick B. Williams
Frederick B. Williams was an influential Harlem minister and canon in the Episcopal Church. For three decades before his death he presided over an historic congregation in New York City whose base, the Church of the Intercession, was a national landmark. During those years he worked tirelessly to bring federal and state funds to the ailing neighborhoods that surrounded his parish, and became an unofficial spokesperson against racism in all forms. The New York Times paid tribute to Williams in an obituary written by journalist Douglas Martin, who called him a minister "whose preaching ranged from proper Episcopalian to old-fashioned Gospel, but whose wisecracks were pure New York."
Williams was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 23, 1939, to parents Walter and Matlyn, and came into his teen years as an intellectual prodigy who entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15. After graduating in 1959, he spent a year at Howard University before enrolling at General Theological Seminary in New York City to earn a second undergraduate degree, this one a Bachelor of Sacred Theology. The Seminary was the oldest institution in the United States for the training of ministers in the Episcopalian faith, the church that is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose mother church is the Church of England.
After graduating in 1963, Williams was ordained and assigned to St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and in 1966 became the rector of St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Inkster, Michigan, a predominantly African-American suburb of Detroit. During his six years there, Williams became active in a nationwide group of black Episcopalian ministers, an organization that took formal shape in 1968 with their co-founding of the Union of Black Clergy and Laity (UBCL) of the Episcopal Church, which sought to eradicate institutional bias in the church. At its inaugural meeting, Williams was elected a UBCL vice president, a post from which he continued his reform efforts.
In late 1972, Williams was named the newest rector of the Church of the Intercession in New York City. This Episcopal congregation dated back to the 1840s and met in a famous neo-Gothic building at the border of Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan, where Broadway and West 155th Street intersect. At the time, the Church of the Intercession was a chapel of Trinity Church, located much further south in Manhattan on Wall Street, an arrangement that stretched back several generations, and its congregation had just 500 members. The surrounding neighborhoods were falling into serious decay, and many of the longtime elite New York families who were once its members had fled to the suburbs. Williams set to work revitalizing the landmark church, which included attracting new members and finding funds to repair the disintegrating building. In 1976, the Church of the Intercession once again became a separate parish. Its members now included future New York City mayor David N. Dinkins and his family.
Williams was one of first African-American religious figures to publicly discuss the threat of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), speaking out as early as 1985 and once even organizing a conference of 50 prominent religious authorities, of whom just 15 attended. By the mid-1980s his church pastorship was blossoming into a more community-inclusive activism around Harlem; a time when New York City's historic black neighborhood had become a watchword for urban blight. The church also stood near Harlem's border with the equally challenged area of Washington Heights, with a predominantly Hispanic population. In 1990, a major New York City hospital, St. Luke's-Roosevelt, announced it would shutter its maternity ward at Amsterdam Avenue and 114th Street, located in the Harlem-adjacent neighborhood of Morningside Heights, and transfer the 42 beds to a more centrally located Midtown campus of the hospital. Williams led the successful campaign to keep the maternity ward in the area, arguing that urban neighborhoods like his had the highest infant mortality rates in the United States. "If they move these services, it means that there will be no more babies cared for in a reasonable and responsible manner in Harlem," the New York Times quoted him as saying.
Williams was also a vocal supporter of an African-American teenager named Lemrick Nelson Jr., who was tried and acquitted for the 1991 slaying of Yankel Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum was a Jewish rabbinical student from Australia who was slain during the infamous Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn in 1991, when tensions between African-Americans and conservative Lubavitcher Jews reached a crisis point. Nelson, who was 16 at the time of the stabbing, was acquitted on criminal charges, but prosecutors filed a wrongful-death suit against him following that for violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. Williams raised money for Nelson's legal defense fund, and he publicly excoriated authorities for what many in the black community perceived as blatant bias fueled by the protests and political clout of the Jewish community in the city. "There is almost a blood lust in the air," New York Times reporter Joe Sexton quoted Williams as saying as the 1994 federal court trial was underway. "This is a legal lynching." The U.S. Attorney General's office even opened an investigation into charges of misconduct on the part of prosecutors for pursuing a second indictment against Nelson.
Williams was a co-founder of the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI), a coalition of some 90 other churches who pooled the resources of their congregations to improve the area with the help of state and federal dollars. He chaired the HCCI for a number of years, and oversaw one of its first major triumphs: the completion of nearly 2,000 new housing units in 1994 in the Bradhurst area of north Harlem, many of them earmarked for low-income residents. In addition to his church duties and community work, Williams also taught at his alma mater, the General Theological Seminary, and was a visiting professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from to 2000 to 2003.
Williams's parish prospered under his leadership. Its membership numbers had doubled in the two decades since he took over. The noted South African cleric Bishop Desmond Tutu, a friend of his, sometimes presided over services at the Church of the Intercession on visits to the United States. Williams died of a heart attack on April 6, 2006, at the age of 66.
At a Glance …
Born Frederick Boyd Williams on April 23, 1939, in Chattanooga, TN; died on April 6, 2006, in New York, NY; son of Walter Howard and Matlyn (Goodman) Williams. Education: Morehouse College, BA, 1959; attended Howard University, 1959-60; General Theological Seminary, Bachelor of Sacred Theology, 1963; Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, DMin, 1975. Religion: Episcopal.
Career: St. Luke's Episcopal Church, curate, Washington, DC, 1963-65; St. Clements Episcopal Church, Inkster, MI, rector, 1966-72; Union of Black Clergy and Laity of the Episcopal Church, co-founder, 1968, and second vice president; Harlem Congregations for Community, co-founder, 1986, and chair during the 1990s; Episcopal Divinity School, Jones lecturer, 1999; Diocese of Botswana, Africa, honorary canon; Church of the Intercession, rector; Episcopal Divinity School, visiting professor, 2000-2003; General Theological Seminary, adjunct professor.
Awards: Most Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem, 1999; recipient of several honorary degrees.
New York Times, February 9, 1968, p. 57; October 15, 1970, p. 29; March 5, 1990, p. B1; June 13, 1990, p. B2; January 6, 1994, p. B1; August 18, 1994; April 8, 2006, p. C10.
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