University’s First African-American Professor Dies

A candle burning.
Rollin Williams, emeritus professor of social work. (Lanny Nagler for UConn)
Rollin Williams, emeritus professor of social work. (Lanny Nagler for UConn)

The University of Connecticut’s first African-American professor, Rollin Charles Williams, died Monday, Sept. 24, in Waterford, Conn., after a short illness. He was 90 years old.

A professor emeritus at the time of his death, Williams was hired as a full-time assistant professor in the School of Social Work in 1957. During his 30 years with the University, Williams spent time running the admissions office and as an interim dean.

A warm, engaging man and gifted storyteller, Williams stayed in touch with many of his former students and held many fond memories of the University. He bequeathed a significant portion of his estate to UConn as a sign of his appreciation.

“After I arrived at UConn, I received requests from five different schools of social work because they wanted black professors,” Williams said in an interview earlier this year. “Affirmative action laws had been passed. But I said no, I wouldn’t take those jobs, because UConn took me when it didn’t have to.”

“The University was truly fortunate that Professor Williams chose to share his intellectual gifts with our students and campus community, and that he was so strongly dedicated to UConn, despite other schools’ attempts to lure him away,” said President Susan Herbst. “He exemplified the highest ideals of service, scholarship, and integrity, and leaves a legacy that we can all strive to emulate.”

The dean of the School of Social Work, Salome Raheim, announced Williams’ death to her faculty and staff earlier this week. “Rollin had a deep fondness for the UConn School of Social Work, and we are grateful for his commitment and contributions,” Raheim said. “The School of Social Work community joins Rollin’s family and friends in mourning his loss.”

Born on March 19, 1922 in Kansas City, Mo., Williams was raised in Tulsa, Okla. during a period of racial turmoil in the city. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class and performed as a solo violinist with the school orchestra. He also earned honors as the Oklahoma state typewriting champion.

Williams graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., then served in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he earned the rank of sergeant major. He went on to earn his master’s degree in social work from Boston University. After working as a medical and psychiatric social worker for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Springfield, Mass. and Northport, N.Y., Williams became the first psychiatric supervisor at Norwich State Hospital. Williams, a resident of Salem, Conn., was a member of the Dime Savings Bank board of directors.

An accomplished musician who greatly enjoyed opera, Williams founded the Connecticut Early Music Society, and was proud of his collection of more than 200 complete operas on compact disc.

A published obituary described Williams as a man who “had a great sense of humor, was very cultured, and was a complement to any setting.”

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012 at 2 p.m. at the Fulton-Theroux Funeral Home, 181 Ocean Ave., New London, CT 06320. A visiting hour will be held one hour prior to the service. A tribute page has been created in Williams’ honor at www.fultontherouxnewlondon.com.