SUNY New Paltz community mourns Black Studies chair A. J. Williams-Myers

A.J. Williams-Myers (left) receives the Heritage Award at SUNY New Paltz Alumni Reunion 2017.

Dr. Albert J. Williams-Myers, professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz and chair for 37 years of its Department of Black Studies, died after a brief illness on Monday, July 12, at the age of 82. Known widely as A. J., Dr. Williams-Myers was renowned for his expertise on African American history, especially in the Hudson Valley, and was a prolific author and editor of books, scholarly articles and research guides in his subject area. Among his influential works were Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson Valley to the Early 20th Century and On the Morning Tide: African Americans, History and Methodology in the Historical Ebb and Flow of Hudson River Society.

William-Myers taught at SUNY New Paltz from 1979 until his retirement in 2016, and was honored with a Heritage Award at the College’s 2017 Alumni Reunion celebration. Also in 2017, the A. J. Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center Library was established at 43 Gill Street in Kingston’s Ponckhockie neighborhood, with 15 boxes’ worth of books from Williams-Myers’ personal archives forming the core of its collection. The Library’s mission is “to promote literacy through teaching and learning about the African roots experience, and to honor and encourage the transmission of history through written and oral history, spoken word, paintings, cultural artifacts and other forms of artistic expression.”

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In an announcement of his death to the college community, SUNY New Paltz president Donald P. Christian noted that even after his retirement, Williams-Myers remained active in the community, serving as a member of the Huguenot Historical Society’s Board of Directors, a director of the New York African American Institute, a member of the New York State Freedom Trail Commission and a historian for the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center in New York City. “One of my most vivid memories of A. J. was his compelling commentary at a reinternment ceremony for African American remains in the Historic Huguenot Street French Church cemetery, the first burial there since the Civil War and the first ever of human remains not of European descent,” Christian recalled.

“As a teacher and productive and engaged scholar, A. J. was well-known for his ability to awaken students to think about history and the lives of people who lived in other times, and what that has to do with his students’ own lives and understanding of who they are. He was particularly adept at helping his students and others understand the historical roots of deeply seated racism in America. He helped his students understand the slave trade and how it and its legacy have played out in the Hudson Valley and in other parts of the northern United States.”

Born in 1939 in Jersey City, New Jersey, to George Frank Williams and Bessie Irene Mallard, young “Albie” had three brothers, Fred, Marvin and James, and three sisters, Virginia, Marjorie and Doris. He worked as a newsboy. At age 13, after his father abandoned the family, Albert Williams was adopted by a local clergyman named C. Kilmer Myers and appended his surname to his own. Reverend Myers helped the promising young man apply to universities and obtain financial aid.

During his first year of college, Williams-Myers fell in love with a young woman named Janice who had come from Colorado to do volunteer work with youth with substance abuse problems in Reverend Myers’ mission on the Lower East Side. The two married in 1962, and Williams-Myers pursued his PhD in African History from UCLA. He wrote his dissertation on “The Nsenga of Central Africa: Political and Economic Aspects of Clan History, 1700 to the Late 19th Century.”

The couple joined the Peace Corps together in 1966, combating tuberculosis in Malawi, where the first of their two daughters was born. A. J. and Janice – an educator, substance abuse counselor, civil rights and labor union activist – were married for more than 50 years and sustained a dynamic intellectual partnership; she predeceased him in March of this year.

Williams-Myers’ extensive travels in Africa to do doctoral research included a tense confrontation with an armed rebel during the civil war in Mozambique, as he related in a talk recorded in 2019 by the TMI Project as part of its “Black Stories Matter: Truth to Power” series (www.tmiproject.org/dr-aj-williams-myers). As a scholar, he defined himself as an “Africanist,” and he specialized in African history during his early years of teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota.

In 1979, he was hired by SUNY New Paltz to replace the Black Studies chair who had resigned; but there were not enough majors in the department at the time to fill an African History course. Thus, he was forced to change the focus of his research to the African American experience. “I realize I can use the same tools to reconstruct the history of the enslaved people that I had used when I was studying the African presence in Africa,” he wrote in his TMI Project memoir. Williams-Myers soon became the go-to expert on the history of Black people in the Hudson Valley and a widely sought-after consultant.

The historical presence of Sojourner Truth, who spent her youth in Esopus and New Paltz, resonated strongly with Williams-Myers from the time he arrived in the area. “Sojourner walks with me still,” he writes. “I feel her. I talk to her. Sometimes I wonder if I am the embodiment of someone she once knew, someone who had been enslaved with her.”

Williams-Myers’ passing evoked an outpouring of appreciation for his life’s work among colleagues in the Hudson Valley. On its Facebook page, the A. J. Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center Library called him “an intellectual giant, friend, mentor and community leader… Without Dr. Williams-Myers our community would be hard-pressed to find any major books of history on African Americans in the Hudson Valley… We will continue to mourn A. J., but we are all blessed to have such a monumental ancestor in our corner.”

The Library plans to honor Williams-Myers’ legacy with a public ceremony at a future date. Funeral arrangements will be announced by the Copeland-Hammerl Funeral Home in New Paltz.