By Tribune Staff
NASHVILLE, TN — The Tennessee Tribune has chosen to honor Dr. McDonald Williams and Dr. Jamye Coleman Williams as Couple of the Year, for their exceptional bond and accomplishments–as educators, civil rights activists, and religious leaders in the AME church. Dr. McDonald Williams celebrated his 100th birthday on November 13, and Dr. Jamye Coleman Williams will celebrate her 99th birthday on December 15!
The Williams were married in 1943, and are proud of their family: their daughter, Donna Williams; one grandson, and two great-granddaughters. They are certainly proud of their family, and also have reason to be proud of their amazing professional achievements.
The husband/wife team of Drs. McDonald Williams and Jamye Coleman Williams have a lifetime of service and activism, and are energetic forces in behalf of good.
Dr. McDonald Williams taught English at many colleges and universities for 46 years. Some believe his greatest contributions were during his three decades at Tennessee State University in Nashville, where he played a key role in the development and expansion of TSU’s Honors Program which he directed for 23 years.
What began as an Honors Program for freshman students, gradually added sophomore, then senior level work, evolving into a premier program at TSU to create a community of academically bright and talented students, serving as campus leaders and role models. Over 400 students were involved at the time of Dr. Williams’ retirement in 1988. In 1995 the honors center was named the McDonald Williams Honors Center. The goal today remains the creation of an Honors College.
In 2013, Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover, became the first female president of TSU. In her inaugural speech, she mentioned that she was a graduate of the Honors Program during Dr. Williams’ tenure, and credited him for helping to keep her in school—as he stood to a round of applause, she said he was among many people who gave her “roots and wings.”
And the Williams also have had a significant impact in religious circles. Dr. McDonald was a long-time member of St. John AME Church in Nashville, and the AME Church’s Commission on Higher Education. He was an Associate Editor of The AME Church Review, America’s oldest Black Journal. Both are current members of Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta.
In 1970, the Williams’ co-edited the groundbreaking anthology, The Negro Speaks: The Rhetoric of Contemporary Black Leaders, which was adopted as an approved text for schools in Tennessee.
Dr. Jamye Coleman Williams’ teaching career spans 50 years. She taught humanities to thousands of students at 5 HBCUs, 4 of which are AME colleges, and expresses pride in being “part of their educational experience.” She joined Tennessee State University’s faculty in 1959, where, in 1973, she became head of the Communications Department until her retirement in 1987. And because the AME church is one of the big forces in her life—her father and brother were AME ministers—she often speaks about the long history of this church and its unflagging activism against slavery and for higher education and economic justice over 200 years. Her students include women and men who later became notable in their fields—in science, the arts, law, government, college presidents, and 8 AME bishops!
Dr. Jamye Coleman was a delegate to the AME General Conference in 1964, and became a board member of the National Council of Churches in 1968. She was an alternate member of the AME Church’s Judicial Council, serving as president of the 13th District Lay Organization from 1977 until 1985. In 1984, she assumed editorship of the AME Church Review, and was the first woman elected as a major officer in the church’s 197-year existence—a position she held for eight years. She also helped other women smash barriers. Her husband, Dr. McDonald has proudly spoken of his wife’s “fierce advocacy for women in ministry, particularly in the bishopry.” Her efforts led to the election in the year 2000 of the first female bishop of the AME Church after 187 years: Vashti McKenzie!
The Williams’s have earned many citations and awards, among them the 2002 Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award by the Community Foundation.
They have been academics, but importantly they have been activists, too. They talked the talk, and walked the walk for civil rights, notably during the 1950-60s in Nashville, and the rising of violence under Jim Crow segregation and racial injustice.
For 40 years Mrs. Williams was on the Executive Committee of the NAACP (her husband McDonald was vice president), working with local youth councils in colleges, fighting injustice that threatened their own and others’ lives. She worked with well-known leaders, including Martin Luther King, John Lewis, James Lawson, and Thurgood Marshall—and others hardly known now.
In 1960, a racially motivated bombing in Nashville and threats of more, solidified the black community. Dr. Jamye has vividly described how the blast, felt several miles away, broke 140 windows at nearby Meharry Medical College (HBCU), injuring some students. A spontaneous silent protest march began at TSU with several hundred, growing to 3,000 with students in schools and colleges joining along the way, including Jamye Williams, her husband, and their daughter Donna. Later, Mrs. Williams was chosen as the only woman on an interracial, inter-religious council, to work on stopping a threatened racist march—which was successfully prohibited.
In 2016, Dr. Jayme Williams was invited by a former student, Dr. S. Allen Coulter, to address Harvard University’s Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. There, it was clear after all these years, that the Williams’ interest in fighting injustice isn’t over; and they continue to ask more from themselves and others. Jamye Williams urged students and faculty, so fortunate in their access to knowledge, to “combat the obstacles to parity in education for African Americans”–adding with great intensity that equality of educational opportunity is a crucial “avenue for all our youth [to] realize their dream and destiny” when “more of our young men are in prison than in college!”
While now residing in Atlanta, their many years in Nashville are fondly remembered. She comes back often for speaking engagements, most recently at Fisk University. Even in retirement and at ages where most folks would be content to sit back and relax, Mrs. Williams continues to be active on the lecture circuit and in the church.
At ages 100 and 99, they remain a powerful couple, continuing to positively affect generations.
Drs. MacDonald and Jamye Williams – Count your birthdays not by the years, but by the blessings. Count the friends, the accomplishments and the joys. Count the people who have come to admire and love you, and count The Tennessee Tribune in.