Williams, Gregory 1943—

views updated

Gregory Williams 1943

Educator, administrator

Knew Himself to be White


Self-defined as Black

Selected writings


Dean of Law at The Ohio State University College of Law, Gregory Williams has had a successful career in academia, having earned a doctorate from George Washington University in 1982. His true claim to fame, however, is a unique life episode that not only shaped who he is but also has contributed an interesting sidelight to the experience of race relations in the United States. Initially raised as white, Williams discovered that at least part of his immediate roots were black; in a racially divided society where even one drop of black blood defined one as being African American, the implications were immense. As he emphasized in theDetroit Free Press, Looking white only goes so far. The issue in America has never been color. Its always been race. Once racial heritage is discovered, thats all thats required. I dont look black, but that didnt make any difference to the people in Indiana in 1954.

Born on November 12, 1943, in Muncie, Indiana, where most of his maternal family resided, Williams spent the earliest years of his life in Virginia. His father James Tony Williams owned a bar and restaurant in Gum Springs, Virginia between Alexandria and Fort Belvoir; the establishment was often frequented by Korean War-bound U.S. soldiers stationed at the fort. U.S. Highway 1, where the Williams tavern was located, was the dividing line in the county between the white populace and the black community. Gum Springs itself was a predominately black neighborhood and had been since the time of the first U.S. president, George Washington. To the east of Route 1 was the white neighborhood.

Knew Himself to be White

The Williamss tavern had both a front area, where whites were served and a back area, for blacks. Although it was illegal in Virginia to operate an establishment with a liquor license that served both races, Tony Williams was allowed to do so because his saloon was the nearest one to Fort Belvoir and served the needs of those about to risk their lives for the rest of the country as well as those who had returned from having done so. I saw segregation of the races as the natural order of life, Gregory Williams expressed in his memoir Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.

At a Glance

Born Gregory Howard Williamson November 12, 1943, in Muncie, Indiana; son of James Anthony (a businessman) and Mary (a homemaker) Williams; married Sara Catherine Whitney, August 29, 1969; children: Natalia Dora, Zachary Benjamin, Anthony Bîadîmir, Carlos Gregory. Education: Ball State University, BA, 1966; University of Maryland, M.A 1969; George Washington University, J. D., 1971, M.Ph, 1977, Ph.D. 1982.

Delaware County, IN, deputy sheriff, 1963-66; Falls Church, (VA) Public Schools, teacher, 1966-70; U.S. Senate, legislative assistant, 1971-73; George Washington University, director of experimental programs, 1973-77;University of Iowa College of Law, professor, 1977-93; University of Iowa, associate vice president of academic affairs, 1991-93; The Ohio State University College of Law, dean and professor of law, 1993-.

Member: Foreign Lawyer Training Program, Washington, DC (consultant, 1975-77); U.S. Civil Rights Commission (Iowa Advisory Commission member, 1978-88); Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Council (member, 1979-85).

Selected awards Certificate of Appreciation, University of Iowa Black Law Students Association, 1984; Distinguished Alumni Award, George Washington University National Law Center, 1994.

Addresses: Office Ohio State University College of Law, 55 West 12th Ave., Columbus, Ohio, 43210-1338

The nature of segregation became clear to Williams early in life. In his autobiography he recalled an powerful event that occurred while at his fathers tavern: a black military figure entered the premises, sat at one of the front booths, and ordered a meal. The waitress recited the law against serving coloreds in the white area. The soldier yelled, Whaddya mean I cant be served? I gave a leg for this f___ing country! Angrily the soldier jerked his khaki trousers to his calf and knocked on a brown artificial limb to emphasize his point. I struggled to reconcile the contradiction of what the country required of the soldier and what the state permitted him to do. Tony Williams told the veteran he would be proud to serve him, took the man back into the family quarters, and gave him a free steak dinner.

Despite writing of such colorful incidents, Williams noted that his family life deteriorated as his childhood advanced. His father drank much of the time and gambled extensively. His parents fought on a regular basis, and his father would beat his mother when drunk. Gregorys mother left part of the family when he was nine years old; she took the two youngest children, leaving behind Gregory and his younger brother Mike. From that point life was rough for Gregory. Eventually Tony Williamss businesses failed due to his drinking and gambling. He packed up the kids and headed to Muncie, Indiana by Greyhound bus. En route Gregory received the news that would change his world forever.

Before the bus reached Muncie, Tony Williams revealed a startling secret to his sons. As Gregory Williams related in the Detroit Free Press: My father said that we were going to be staying with his family, a family I knew absolutely nothing about. And he said Do you remember Miss Sallie? I remembered a Miss Sallie, a tall thin black woman who would come into and out of our lives, identified as a maid, a cook. She was around, but we just didnt know who she was. He said, Well thats my mother, and thats your grandmother. That means you boys are part colored, and Im colored. And in Indiana, youre going to be colored boys. In Virginia you were white boys. Now, youre not any different today than you were yesterday, but in Indiana people are going to treat you differently.


Not surprisingly, Williams was shocked by the information his father had disclosed. He knew from Virginia that life would indeed be different; at first he denied what his dad was told him. He remembered swimming in whites only pools, drinking from whites only fountains, and going to whites only movies in his former life. Having had only heard his dad referred to as Italian, but never as colored, young Gregory soon came to understand that his father was a high-yellow mulatto, or a very light skinned black of mixed parenting.

Williams and his brother were re-classified in school once their racial heritage was discovered. According to Ebony, Williamss official transcript contained a warning to teachers not to be fooled by his appearance. Initially Gregory and his brother stayed with their aunt and uncle; later, the brothers were taken in by their grandmother Sallie, who lived in a tar paper-covered, 3-room shack at the edge of the town junkyard. Sallie drank as much as their father did and entertained a variety of men when she did.

After a few months Sallie could no longer care for the boys, so they went to live with a 52-year-old widow of one of their fathers gambling and drinking buddies. Ms. Dora Terry-Weekly was a poor woman who supported the boys on her monthly $25 social security check in addition to a housekeeping job she heldd. A very religious woman, Miss Dora introduced the Williamss brothers to the Pentecostal Church. Miss Dora proved to be one of the few stable people in Williamss life. She provided the loving home that Gregory and his brother needed until they reached adulthood. She basically saved my life, Williams told Ebony.She took us in when no one else would or could. She provided help when we were getting hit with all this stuff [including] the racial intolerance..

Williams was able to learn more about his family background while staying with and later visiting his grandmother. He learned that he came from a mixed racial ancestry going back several generations. His greatgrandfather was a Cherokee Indian, Gregorys grandfather was a rich white Kentuckian who never acknowledged paternity, and of course Gregorys own mother was white. Williams had relatives that were all colors from honey to brown to chocolate he specified inLife on the Color Line.

Of all of Williamss mothers extensive family-several aunts and uncles as well as his maternal grandparents--only one of his mothers sisters ever allowed him into her house. His maternal grandmother visited once, nearly one year after they arrived in Muncie. Pulling up to the house where Williamss was staying, she honked her car horn until he came out, refusing to enter the home of a Negro. Once in the car all his grandmother would say was that she had seen his mother. Williams stated in his autobiography that his grandmother would not f oreward messages from him to his mother because she said I dont carry messages for niggers.

The prejudice Williams faced ran both ways; in Life on the Color Line, he noted that though he was often attacked by white youths because they knew he was a nigger, he also fought black youths who thought he was a cracker, or white. Williams used these difficulties to focus only upon school-studying hard and receiving excellent grades-but his work went largely unrecognized by adults because most academic commendations were reserved for white students. The only time he was able to see the guidance counselor was in the ninth grade, he remembered inEbony.He had been seen talking to white girls and was told by the school official that this interracial dating thing is something that just isnt done in Muncie . Summarily reprimanded, he was threatened with suspension. Williams also excelled in athletics during high school: he was the starting quarterback on the football team and a forward on the basketball team.

Self-defined as Black

After graduating from high school Williams attended Ball State University in Muncie, where, in 1966, he acquired his B.A. in criminal justice. He worked as a janitor and as the deputy sheriff of Delaware County to pay his way through college. After completing his undergraduate education, Williams moved to the Washington, DC area to pursue a law degree, enrolling at the University of Maryland. He taught in a public school system, while earning his graduate degree.

While in the Washington area, Williams tried to reestablish contact with his mother, whom he had only seen once in the 12 years since she had left him. Williams related inLife on the Color Line that his attempts were unsuccessful. She made it clear to Williams that the only way for him to re-enter her life would be for him to reject the life he had lived for the past 10 years-i.e. the black life. A hurt Williams assessed in Ebony that there was no acknowledgment that she might have messed up or that she was sorry she turned her back on her children and hadnt sent us a card or letter or anything in 12 years. He has not had much contact with her since.

In 1969, the same year he obtained a masters degree in government and politics, Williams married his high school sweetheart, Sara Whitney. She was one of the white girls he had been warned about talking to while in Muncie. Whitney had also encountered racism in Indiana. Neighbors would telephone her parents home and call her nigger lover, Williams acknowledged in Life on theColorLine.After her parents moved out of town, Whitney stayed with her grandmother. Williams and Whitney managed to keep their relationship fairly quiet to avoid harassment, until they attended a wedding together one day. Folks called Whitneys grandmother to tell that they had witnessed the couple together. When she found out that Williams was black, Whitneys grandmother responded by throwing all her granddaughters belongings into the street. The ensuing turmoil caused an initial breakup between the two adolescents, shortly after high school ended, but having kept in touch, the two grew close again.

Meanwhile, Williams still had his sights set on being involved in the legal profession. To that end, he applied for and was accepted at George Washington University, earning a J.D. there in 1971. That year Williams put his training to the test as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate. A couple years later, George Washington University offered him a position as head of experimental programs. At the end of his four years in that post, he had also earned a masters of philosophy from the school. Williams and family relocated to Iowa in 1977, where he took an academic post at the University of Iowa College of Law. For nearly 20 years, Williams served the institution as a professor of law; then in 1991, the University of Iowa gave him the additional title of associate vice president of academic affairs. Two years later the Williams moved to Ohio.

Williams has made a comfortable life for himself. After marrying, he and his wife had two children by birth and two children through adoption, thus continuing the tradition of opening ones home to those that need love, as Miss Dora had. They live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Columbus; since 1993, Williams has been administrative head the College of Law at Ohio State University. Obviously a driven man, Williams still managed to find the time to record his life story. In speaking about his 1995 book Life on the Color Line, Williams told Ebony, Im sure Ill write other books in my life. But I hope this one is the one that endures, the one that tells America it cannot be so consumed by race that it discards people, the one that tells little kids who faced or are facing what I did that life can be different, better. Because if it happened for me, it can happen for them.

Selected writings

The Law and Politics of Police Discretion, Green wood, 1984.

(Contributor with University of Iowa Continuing Legal Education Staff) Iowa Guide to Search and Seizure,

University of Iowa Law, 1986.

Lifeon theColorLine: The True Story of a WhiteBoy Who Discovered He Was Black, NAL-Dutton, 1995.



Williams, Gregory Howard, Life on the Color Line: The Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, Viking, 1995.


Detroit Free Press, March 3, 1995, pp. 1J, 4J. Ebony, October 1992, pp. 88-96.

Stephen Stratton

About this article

Williams, Gregory 1943—

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article