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Williams, Helen Bass, 1916-1991



  • Existence: March 29, 1916 - December 13, 1991

Biographical Information

Helen Bass Williams was an educator, public health worker, and civil rights leader in the South during the Civil Rights movement. She worked and protested alongside well-known activists such as Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Modjeska Simkins, and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, Williams came to Purdue to serve as the first African American faculty member where she worked as an assistant professor in French and a counselor for minority students in the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education (HSSE).

Born on March 29, 1916 in Dewmaine, Illinois, Williams was the only daughter of Lillian (Spears) and Homer Kelley. Williams had connections to community activism and politics through her family. Her father was an elected official in the United Mine Workers of America, her great-grandfather on her father's side was a sub-conductor on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, and her mother was active in her community and in politics. After her father's death in 1922, Williams moved between Dewmaine, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois, staying with her mother or with relatives.

Williams was educated as both a teacher and healthcare worker. She earned a teaching certificate from Southern Illinois Normal at Carbondale in 1937 and a Bachelor of Arts from Southern Illinois University, majoring in French and Elementary, in 1942. Williams also earned two masters degrees, one in Public Health from North Carolina College at Durham in 1950 and the other in French from Southern Illinois University in 1964.

While living in Southern Illinois, Williams served as the principal of Dewmaine Elementary School (1937-1940) and later taught at Mount Carbon Grade School (1940-1941). During this period, she married her first husband, Dr. Jewell Lee Bass, a local physician. They were married from 1934 until 1950 when he passed away.

Williams moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1950 after earning her Master's in Public Health. Here, she worked at the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association (1950-1956) before joining the faculty at Benedict College (1956-1962), a historically Black college. Williams taught Introduction to Education, Biology, and French. During her tenure at Benedict College, Williams became involved with the Highlander Folk School, a social justice education center. At Highlander, she worked as a recruiter and served as a board member alongside activists such as Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, and Esau Jenkins. Williams would transport students from Benedict College to Highlander so they could participate in trainings, such as workshops on voter registration and grassroots political processes.

In 1964, Williams moved to Mississippi where she worked as a teacher, health director, and civil rights leader. Williams taught French at Tougaloo College, one of Mississippi's Black colleges, from 1964-1967. This position allowed her to connect with other activists through the college and continue her movement work. While at Tougaloo, Williams contributed to early mobilizations efforts for Head Start Programs in Mississippi by writing grants and educating teachers. She also served as health director for the Child Development Group of Mississippi, one of the first Head Start programs in Mississippi, where she addressed the inadequacies and racism in Mississippi's health care system. She gained employment as a consultant for the federal government's Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), where she worked to mediate between two of the Head Start programs in Mississippi who were competing for the same funding. In 1967, Williams left Tougaloo College to become the director of the Mississippi Action for Progress, another Head Start program. Though she was there for less than a year, Williams worked to rewrite the bylaws to give Head Start parents more control over local programs. While in Mississippi, Williams also participated in freedom rides to allow Black Mississippi residents to vote, "Freedom Radio" which attempted to bridge the gap between Black and white communities, and opened her house to Black students and activists. She also participated in protests and stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

Professor Mary Enders Fyfe recruited Helen Bass Williams to Purdue University. Fyfe was a professor at Purdue University who met Williams in Mississippi in 1965 through their work together at Tougaloo College. In 1968, Williams became the first African American faculty member at Purdue University where she worked as an assistant professor of modern languages and a counselor for minority students in the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education (HSSE). While at Purdue, Williams recruited Black students from schools throughout Indiana, wrote programs and proposals, encouraged the addition of Black faculty, planned bridging programs, and worked with students to encourage them to evaluate and vocalize their needs. She helped create the Africana Studies program (now the African American Studies program), Black Cultural Center, The Learning Center (now the Academic Success Center), and served on the first executive board of the Black Faculty and Staff Council (now Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff) in 1975 and as a faculty advisor for Harambee, a Black student organization on campus. Williams also opened her house to students in need by providing lodging and meals.

In 1978, Williams retired from Purdue and returned to Southern Illinois to care for her mother who was ill. Here, she continued her work mentoring students and activists and working with an assortment of grassroots community groups. She also wrote for a community newsletter, No. 9, where she focused on Black history and current political issues for Black families.

Throughout her life, Williams earned numerous awards for her work as a civil rights leader and educator, including many from Purdue University. Williams died on December 13, 1991 in the former mining camp of Colp, Illinois at 75 years old. In 1993, the Black Cultural Center established the Helen Bass Williams scholarship award as a tribute to her life and work.


Late civic leader Kelly honored (2017, May 1). The Telegraph. Retrieved from:


Lillian M. Russell dies (1978, January 20). Southern Illinoisan, pp. 17. Retrieved from:


Malkovich, B. (2007, January 15). A tribute fit for a King. The Southern Illinoisan. Retrieved from:


O'Hara, M. (2004). Let it fly: The legacy of Helen Bass Williams (doctoral dissertation). Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois. Retrieved from:

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Mary O'Hara papers on Helen Bass Williams

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 311
Overview This collection documents Dr. Mary O'Hara's research into and relationship with Helen Bass Williams and includes research notes, correspondence, oral history recordings, interview transcripts, and published materials.
Dates: 1951 - 2007; Majority of material found within 1985 - 2000