In Memoriam: Dr. Kenny J. Williams
by Alan Charles Kors, Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus, FIRE
It is with immeasurable sadness that I report to you the death of Kenny J. Williams, a member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors from our first day, and a member of our newly expanded Board of Directors. Kenny died, at the age of 76, after a heroic struggle against cancer, late on December 19, 2003. The world is diminished.
Kenny received her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959, where she had been greeted by surprise that she was both female (the “Kenny” was after “Kentucky,” where she’d been born) and black. Her first advisor said to her, “I’ve never taught colored before. How should I teach you?” Kenny replied, “Why not teach me the way you would teach anyone else?” Her advisor answered, “That’s a wonderful idea.” It is typical of everything about Kenny that she ended the narrative, “Within a semester, we were fast friends.”
I met Kenny in 1992, when we both were named to the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. We met in D.C. four times a year, socializing often, and talking about the Humanities, the catastrophes befalling academic life, the sad re-segregation and balkanization of our universities, life, urban architecture (of which her knowledge and appreciation were legendary), art, the world, dolls (of which her collection was legendary), and the cosmos. She was inimitable. We served on the same Committee for Scholarships and Fellowships, where her extraordinary critical mind, her tolerance, and her insistence that individuals actually know what they were talking about all worked wonders. She threw the best parties in the South, by the way, where one met the most diverse cross-section of people that any college town could ever offer, and out-of-towners galore. Kenny’s kindness had few bounds. Her piety and her spiked punch did not seem to go together, but Kenny was always joyously surprising.
Kenny was hired by Duke University’s Department of English in 1977, and she taught there until the end. A beloved teacher, she ignored fads, and she gave a rare love of literature to a generation of students. She was a prolific author, publishing They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930 (1970); In the City of Men: Another Story of Chicago (1974); Prairie Voices: A Literary History of Chicago (1980); and A Storyteller to a City: Sherwood Anderson’s Chicago (1988). She co-edited Chicago’s Public Wits (1983). At the time of her death, she was at work on a major study of American writers during the Civil War. She published articles on Sherwood Anderson, Phillis Wheatley, the politicization of the study of Afro-American literature, Mark Twain, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, the predecessors of the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago humor, and Herman Melville.
In honor of her father, who had been president of the Baptist Convention, Kenny founded and administered a charitable foundation that gave especially to education in cities where her father had been a pastor. Her generosity to FIRE, in all respects, was inspirational.
Kenny Williams was one of a kind, and she graced us at FIRE with her moral passion, her belief in human dignity, her commitment to an integrated and tolerant America, and her love of liberty. She saw through nonsense. She spoke truth. She believed that free human beings define themselves. She cared about the things that were precious. FIRE will miss her more than words can express, and I shall feel her presence in everything that we do right.