Influential minister and educator and university president in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Kenneth R. Williams won an alderman seat in 1947 and became the first African American to defeat a white opponent in a twentieth-century election in a Southern city.
Although a native of Virginia, Williams grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After earning his high school diploma from Columbian Heights High School, Williams traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to attend Morehouse College. He graduated with an A.B. in 1933 and later earned a Ph.D. from Boston University.
During his early professional career, Williams juggled responsibilities as a minister and as an educator. His first teaching job was from 1936 to 1937 at Winston-Salem Teachers College (WCTU). From 1937 to 1939, he taught at Palmer Memorial Institute. Minister of First Institutional Baptist Church, Williams also pastored servicemen as a chaplain during World War II.
After the War ended, many changes occurred in Winston-Salem. More than a few historians argue that World War II did more to change the South than any other event; many young soldiers returned to their small-town or rural communities after experiencing cosmopolitan Europe. During the war and immediately afterward, in particular, labor disputes abounded in Winston-Salem. Black workers at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) went on strike in 1943 and criticized the city’s black middle class, who worked to maintain amicable professional relationships with factory owners. Eventually the National Labor Relations Board intervened, and the black workers, with the assistance of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), came to an agreement in 1944 with RJR. Shortly afterward the CIO led a voter registration drive and thereby the number of black voters in the city swelled almost ten-fold. Meanwhile, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) grew almost exponentially in Winston-Salem and the local chapter, writes historian Jeffrey Crow, grew to be the largest in the organization. Amid this time of change and increased political awareness and influence among the African American communities in Winston-Salem, Williams was elected as an alderman in 1947 and became, writes Crow again, “the first black candidate in the twentieth-century South to outpoll a white opponent in a municipal election.”
Shortly after pastoring West End Baptist Church (Winston-Salem), Williams returned to where he first taught and would retire. In 1961, the Board of Trustees appointed Williams as president of WCTU. During his administration, the college increased the number of programs while buildings were added to the campus. In 1972, WCTU became Winston-Salem State University and part of the University of North Carolina system. Kenneth Williams retired as chancellor of WSSU. He died one year later in 1989.
James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens, 1999); Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina (Raleigh, 2002); Winston-Salem State University, “Dr. Kenneth R. Williams” in Presidents and Chancellors Gallery, http://www.wssu.edu/WSSU/About/Administration/Information+Resources/C.G.+OKelly+Library/arc_krw.htm (accessed July 3, 2008).