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Helen Bass Williams papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 310

Scope and Contents

The Helen Bass Williams papers were created and collected by Williams and document her personal life, education, and work as a civil rights activist in the South, educator, and counselor and professor at Purdue University. Types of materials include birth, marriage, and death certificates; correspondence; poetry; professional papers from her work in the South and at Purdue; articles and stories by Williams on Black history and experiences in the Civil Rights Movement; photographs; memorabilia; awards; pamphlets and publications; and audio recordings.

These papers would be important for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement; Head Start programs in Mississippi; the connection between storytelling and social movements; the minority experience at Purdue; the founding of the Africana Studies program, Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff, and the Learning Center at Purdue; and educators in higher education, particularly African American or women educators.

Some materials will be harmful to researchers as they contain descriptions of racism and acts of violence perpetrated by white Mississippians and others against Williams and others within the Black community, as well as offensive and racist language commonly used at the time.


  • 1915 - 2004
  • Majority of material found within circa 1960s and 1970s


Access Information

Majority of materials are open for research. Materials containing personal or sensitive materials have been restricted and in some cases redacted versions have been made available in their place. Audio recording has been processed and is open for research.

Copyright and Use Information

Rights for materials created by Helen Bass Williams have been transferred to Purdue University. Rights for other materials may be held by the original creator. Consult with Purdue University Archives and Special Collections prior to reproduction of materials.

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 in French 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.


4.699 Cubic Feet (Four full-width legal-size manuscript boxes, three full-width letter-size manuscript boxes, one half-width letter-size manuscript box, two flat boxes, and one flat folder)

8.028 Gigabytes : Four digital files

Language of Materials




This collection includes documents, correspondence, published materials, photographs, and audio recordings collected and created by Helen Bass Williams that document her personal life, education, and her work as a civil rights activist in the South, educator, and counselor and professor at Purdue University.


The Helen Bass Williams papers are arranged into eight series based on the organization imposed by the donor.
  1. Personal
  2. Correspondence
  3. Awards and Recognition
  4. Writings
  5. Career and Activism
  6. Published materials
  7. Photographic and Audio materials
  8. Artifacts

Physical Access Information

Audio recordings in Series 7 have been processed and digital copies can be accessed onsite in the Archives and Special Collections reading room. Requests to access born-digital materials must be made at least two (2) days in advance.

Some materials are fragile and require extra care when handling.

Custodial History

Materials were created and collected by Helen Bass Williams but were arranged by Mary O'Hara. Near the end of Williams' life, O'Hara assisted Williams in sorting her personal affects, including her papers that were largely stored in bags and boxes in her garage. After Williams' death, leaving no living family, Williams transferred the materials to O'Hara in her will. O'Hara sorted and organized the salvageable materials for use in her thesis on the life of Helen Bass Williams. In doing so, she handwrote or included post-it notes on many of the materials. On August 8, 2019, O'Hara donated Williams' materials and O'Hara's research materials to the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections.

Acquisition Information

Materials were donated by Dr. Mary O'Hara, August 16, 2019.


No further additions to the collection are expected.

Separated Materials

Materials created by O'Hara and Williams were originally interfiled as Williams' materials were used for O'Hara dissertation research. Materials created by O'Hara were separated and described as their own unique collection.

Reports, memos, and working papers created by the Africana Studies Research Center and Research Committee were separated and added to UA 156, African American Studies records. However any documents annotated by Williams were retained with her papers.

Select books were transferred to the Black Cultural Center as they contained no annotations and were not rare.

Processing Information

Materials were arranged by Mary O'Hara for use in researching her dissertation. Order imposed by O'Hara was largely maintained except in select cases where materials appeared to be out of order. File names created by O'Hara were largely maintained but in some instances were altered for clarity. File names that were preserved verbatim are placed in quotation marks ["]. Newspaper articles have been photocopied for preservation purposes and placed with the originals. All materials have been rehoused in acid-free folders and enclosures and acidic and non-archival enclosures were discarded. In some cases, O'Hara included post-it notes on Williams materials. These have been photocopied and the original post-it was discarded. Materials containing personal and sensitive information were restricted and, in some cases, a redacted version was provided in their place. One over-size rolled photograph was relaxed by conservator. Common books and publications that contained no personal annotations were either transferred or discarded. Williams kept financial records of Black students at Purdue. These were destroyed as they contained information protected by FERPA for which we could never provide access. Duplicates of photographs or publications in excess of two copies were discarded or destroyed. Audio recording was digitized by an external vendor in January 2021.
Helen Bass Williams papers
Katey Watson
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
First edition.

Repository Details

Part of the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Repository

504 Mitch Daniels Boulevard
West Lafayette Indiana 47907 United States