Helen Bass Williams papers
Scope and Contents
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
- Williams, Helen Bass, 1916-1991 (Person)
Copyright and Use Information
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
- Awards and Recognition
- Career and Activism
- Published materials
- Photographic and Audio materials
Physical Access Information
Some materials are fragile and require extra care when handling.
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.
- African American students
- African American universities and colleges
- Africana Studies
- Artifacts (Object genre)
- Blacks -- Segregation
- Civil rights movements -- United States
- Civil rights workers
- Community education
- Discrimination in medical care
- Fyfe, Mary Endres, 1914-2005
- Harambee (1974-1976)
- Head Start Program (U.S.)
- Highlander Research and Education Center (Knoxville, Tenn.)
- Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
- King, Ed, Rev., 1936-
- Letters (Correspondence)
- Medical care
- Minorities -- Counseling of -- United States
- Minority college teachers--United States
- Mississippi Action for Progress
- Open reel audiotapes
- Purdue Black Student Union (1969-)
- Purdue University. African American Studies and Research Center
- Purdue University. Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff
- Purdue University. Student Success Programs. Academic Success Center
- Race discrimination -- United States
- Student movements
- Student organizations
- Tougaloo College
- Voter intimidation
- Women in higher education
- Helen Bass Williams papers
- Katey Watson
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Edition statement
- First edition.