NASHVILLE, TN — Former Nashvilian Dr. Jamye Coleman Williams, a renowned and influential educator, church leader and social reform activist, whose former students included talk show host Oprah Winfrey, opera singer Leontyne Price and Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph, died January 19, 2022 in Atlanta, GA, just over a month after celebrating her 103rd birthday on December 15.
Jamye and her husband of 75 years, noted educator McDonald “Mack” Williams, who died Aug. 11, 2019, were teachers at Tennessee A&I — now known as Tennessee State University — when they were involved as behind-the-scenes organizers in Nashville’s downtown lunch counter sit-in movement during the Civil Right Movement in the early 1960s.
At the time, Jamye was an advisor for the NAACP’s Youth Council and sat on the executive committee of the organization’s Nashville branch. Each week they had mass meetings, and the couple transported students from various college campuses to Downtown’s First Baptist Church, where the sit-ins were organized under the guidance of the church’s Rev. Kelly Miller Smith.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Jamye earned a bachelor’s degree with honors at Ohio’s Wilberforce University in 1938 and a year later graduated with a master’s degree in English from Nashville’s Fisk University. Over the next two decades she served as an English teacher at Edward Waters College, Shorter College, Morris Brown College, and Wilberforce University before completing her doctorate in speech communications at Ohio State University in 1959.
That fall she joined the faculty at Tennessee State University and became a full professor of communications and took over in 1973 as head of the department, remaining so until her retirement in 1987.
Jamye and Mack Williams were early supporters of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
In 1992, just a year after The Foundation was formed, they established the Williams Designated Fund to benefit Wilberforce University and Payne Theological Seminary. The Williams, who served on the boards of each of these esteemed institutions, wanted to endow their support. In perpetuity, payments from this Fund will be issued to these schools annually.
They, along with a number of community leaders, helped establish The Tricentennial Fund with CFMT in 1996, with grants from the Fund designed to address pressing needs in the future.
In 2002, The Foundation honored the couple with its annual Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award. Jamye also formerly served on the CFMT’s board of directors.
“I’m reminded upon the recent death of distinguished actor and activist Sidney Poitier, how much my dear friend Jamye Williams reminded me of Poitier’s character in the movie, “To Sir, With Love,” said Ellen Lehman, president of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. “They were both teachers who were always getting people into situations where good things happened.”
According to her biography in The History Makers: A Digital Repository for The Black Experience, at the same time that her academic career took off, Jamye began to ascend the leadership ranks of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. She served as a delegate to the A.M.E. General Conference in 1964 and became a board member of the National Council of Churches in 1968. From 1976 to 1984, she was an alternate member of the A.M.E. Church’s Judicial Council, serving as president of the 13th District Lay Organization from 1977 until 1985.
At the 1984 General Conference, Williams was named editor of The AME Church Review, the oldest African American literary journal. She held that post for eight years. Williams also has paved the way for others in the A.M.E., helping Vashti McKenzie win election as the first female A.M.E. bishop.
Here is the video we edited with Jayme Williams shortly after her 100th birthday. It features a special message to her from Oprah herself.
Here is the original video we pulled the footage of Jayme from … her segment begins at 6:57