Planting a seed: Flagler College’s first black professor

By Hasani Malone |

The lively sounds of a keyboard, muffled behind the heavy door of room 323 in Kenan Hall, grew louder when Dr. Carl Williams, a deaf education professor at Flagler, reached the door.

As one student sat at the keyboard and others sang a cheerful tune before the start of his elementary arts course, Williams walked through the door causing a quiet to fall over the room, but he urged them to keep playing – reminding him of his own time as a student at Flagler, back when the small school proved that it could be even tinier.

Williams reminisced on the piano room that he remembered to be in the Ponce dorms, where the current security office is located. He recalls a time when he, and other students, would gather around the pianos, singing well-known songs from the time.

Now at 63, Williams became an integral part of Flagler’s history when he was hired in 1988– becoming the first African American professor to work at the college full-time.

Williams got his start in Augusta, a city in Georgia that hugs the border of South Carolina and was the childhood home of the late singer James Brown and President Woodrow Wilson. Born to a teacher and a minister, it only made sense that he would follow their same path and take on a life of teaching as well.

Williams, who grew up in a predominantly black area has always considered himself lucky for the unique experience that he was given growing up, one that would help nurture his love for learning throughout his lifetime.

“Unlike students who grew up in other areas, who didn’t see people who looked like them in key positions, I always knew that I could be successful because I was surrounded by successful people who looked like me,” he said.

From a young age, Williams loved stories and the language that came from it. His older sister, four years his senior, helped cultivate his love for reading through her own love for reading. Their frequent trips to the library resulted in him pushing for his own library card which allowed him to check out three to four books with each visit.

Each summer throughout his childhood, Williams would spend two months on his grandparents’ farm in Hephzibah, Georgia with his late, younger brother. With no other kids to play with, the two boys depended on each other for entertainment and help with chores, which included milking cows, gathering eggs and making butter. And during their time, the two boys would sit around their grandparents who shared their stories – one in particular that stuck with Williams throughout his life, of his shy grandmother disobeying her father and running off to elope her then-boyfriend.

“I certainly think that I learned a lot because it was just my brother and me, and my grandmother and my grandfather. And we’d sit and listen to all their stories and I guess being students, hearing all their stories that maybe even my parents didn’t know. I knew a lot about my history, my families history,” Williams said. “So I think being a student under their tutelage, I sort of saw teaching as telling stories and I guess it’s sorta what pushed me into the arena of wanting to be a teacher myself.”

Williams began his path towards becoming a teacher during his sophomore year of high school when a Flagler recruiter visited his school. That same year, his class took a field trip to Saint Augustine where he was able to visit the college. This solidified, in his mind, that Flagler was the school for him.

“One of the things I particularly liked about Flagler was the emphasize on languages, the modern romance languages – I was interested in French and Spanish as well as English and literature.”

His love for verbal languages transferred into a love for the nonverbal as well during a camping trip with a local minister, Walter “Mike” Busby and a group of school-aged deaf students. Despite not knowing any sign language, Williams was able to communicate with the students well. By the next Monday, he went through the process of changing his major to deaf education, taking him off the path of becoming a newspaper columnist to becoming a teacher.

During his time in school, Williams ran into some hardships. Most students learning sign language know someone in their life who is deaf; Williams did not, which forced him to start from scratch and work harder than many of his peers. He did this by immersing himself in the deaf community to get a hands-on experience — and the work definitely paid off. Now Williams knows four languages fluently — Spanish, English, French and American Sign Language (ASL).

Williams entered Flagler as a freshman in 1973 and graduated in 1977 before obtaining his masters degree in special education and beginning his time as a deaf education teacher. After working at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB), he was asked to return to Flagler in 1988, but this time he would be a full time professor, and their first African American one to be exact.

Although he was the first full-time professor, Williams wants to make it clear that there was an African American professor before him, one that he saw as both a mentor and a friend. Patricia Roberson, who died in 2010, also attended Flagler and went on to pursue a career in education by working through the St. Johns County school system. William’s describes her as laying out a path for him, who would later work at Flagler as well.

“She was sort of like our den mother, she would invite us to dinner every Sunday. She taught in elementary education as a part-time [professor], while I was still teaching at FSDB,” Williams recalled of his friend’s background. “A lot of people don’t remember her and she’s passed on now, but she made great strides.”

But for the deaf education professor, it’s important that he is seen as more than just an aspect of Flagler’s black history — but their history as a whole.

“When I hear that adjective used, it seems to say ‘you’re here, you’re a part of this history — black history. But when Flagler was founded in 1968, there was a different history. I’m part of that history [too], and that’s where I see myself,” Williams said. “I received [the president’s award of excellence] in 1977 when I graduated … when you go into the president’s office and you see 1977, my name is among all those other names; that’s how I see myself. I’m among those.”

Although Williams was the first black teacher at the college, he says race never affected his classrooms in a negative way. Rather, many of his students seemed to go out of their way in terms of niceness, as a way to prove they appreciated him as a professor, regardless of skin tone, he said.

“In one case, it was early on and I remember this discussion in class where a student said something like ‘well it’s just not black and white’ metaphorically-speaking, and I still remember he comes to my office and he ask ‘I didn’t offend you in class, did I?,’” Williams recalls, a smile spreading slowly across his face.

And it was no question that students took an immediate liking to the new professor, who had won Student Government Association’s Faculty Member of the Year Award in both 1992 and 1999, an award that many would say wasn’t easy to receive.

Maybe it was because of his teaching style, or the passion he has for the subjects he teaches, but it’s hard to overlook the approachable and giving personality that Williams possesses, who will admit to even giving the tie off his neck to a student in need.

And while his award from SGA is important to him–they hang on his office wall that is decorated with a number of other awarded accomplishments–the two most significant accomplishments that he’s had was his graduation from his master’s program at University of North Florida and the release of his two books on deaf education that he uses in his classes.

In his 45 year relationship with Flagler, he’s seen the college change greatly, watching the even smaller school grow into what we know as Flagler today. Williams has seen each era that the school has had to offer, and stuck by it through it all.

Williams remembers during his graduate school interview, the interviewer asked him what makes him different from other applicants. William’s remarked that while many other applicants wanted to become principals and superintendents–job titles he found no interest in–he wanted to be a teacher. He remember saying that he could be a great leader from his own classroom, and he has proven that to be true.

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