Kalamazoo College archivist Lisa Murphy ’98 loves the detective work associated with her position. A recent “case” transpired in June with a phone call from Lorinda Jeter. Lorinda wanted to know more about her ancestor, Kalamazoo College graduate Charles Lewis Williams Jr., class of 1907. More specifically, she wanted to know if Charles was the first African American to graduate from K. Other sources—some of uncertain reliability—make that claim for other persons, including two brothers, John and Solomon Williamson; or for Rufus Lewis Perry, who may have earned a degree in the 1860s; or for Henry A. Williams, who was on campus some three decades later.
According to Murphy, the College has generally considered the Williamson brothers as the first black students (they were from Jamaica) to graduate, and Pauline Byrd Johnson, class of 1926, as the first African American to graduate.
But is that certain? Could Lisa help settle the mystery?
“Lorinda’s family has some photos from Charles Lewis’s college years,” says Murphy, “and they knew that he was captain of the football team.” As far as Lorinda knew, Charles never married, although some photos of him were taken with a woman who may have been a girlfriend. Lorinda is descended from Charles’ brother Harry, who was a Baptist minister.
Murphy started her sleuthing. That Charles Lewis Williams Jr. graduated from K is certain—on June 19, 1907, with an A.B. degree. “To verify that he was the first African American to graduate from K, I needed to confirm whether Rufus Lewis Perry earned a degree in the 1860s,” says Murphy. “Perry was a freed slave and he appears as a member of the Junior Class in the Preparatory Department in the 1859-60 catalog,” she adds. However, in the catalog for the following year, Perry was not listed. “He was not in the college classes at that time,” concludes Murphy, “and it’s clear that he did not graduate from Kalamazoo College with a bachelor’s degree. It’s possible he graduated from the seminary–a separate institution at the time, but the evidence of that is inconclusive.”
According to Murphy, besides Perry, the only other African American known to study at the college in the 19th century was Henry A. Williams, from 1896-98. He was listed as an unclassified student in the academic catalogs from 1896-98, and there is no record of his graduating. The Williamson brothers began their studies at K in 1906, when Charles Lewis Williams Jr. was a senior, and Williamson brothers’ graduation would have occurred after Williams’.
Based on her investigation, Murphy says: “Charles Lewis Williams Jr. is the earliest known African-American graduate from Kalamazoo College.”
Despite similarity in middle names and surnames—Lewis, Williams, Williams and Williamson—Murphy found no evidence of any familial relationship.
She did discover some interesting details. Charles Lewis Williams Jr. was born in Troughhill, Virginia, in 1878. He had previously studied at the Virginia Union University Preparatory Department. Both Kalamazoo College and Virginia Union University were founded by members of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and indirect connection that may have played a role in Williams decision to attend K. A more direct connection may have been Frank Coburn Dickey, Kalamazoo College class of 1899, who became the chair of the Mathematics Dept. at Virginia Union University. “He may have been the one to refer Williams to K,” says Murphy. “We do know they were at Virginia Union University at the same time, and that Williams started his studies at K in 1903.”
At K Charles Lewis Williams lived in the men’s dormitory, and his roommate was a James Thomas Rooks from Gates, North Carolina. In addition to playing football, Williams was a member of the Century Forum literary society and served as vice-president of the College Oratorical Association and treasurer of the Brook’s Classical Club. He won the Cooper Prize in Oratory and planned to study at the University of Chicago after graduation. Some years later, the K’s Alumni Notes publication list Williams as the YMCA secretary at St. Louis, Missouri.