083: Rhonda Y. Williams, 40


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

83: Rhonda Y. Williams, 2-4-08

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University, 2004-present.
Area of Research: African-American history, Black Women’s history, Urban history.
Education: Ph.D., History, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, May 1998.
Major Publications: Williams is the author of The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Inaugural book in interdisciplinary series, Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities, with special co-editors Cathy Cohen and Fred Harris. She is the co-editor of Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom’s Bittersweet Song with Julie Armstrong, Susan Hult, Houston Roberson (New York: Routledge), September 2002. Williams is also the co-editorRhonda Y. Williams JPGwith
Karen Sotiropoulos of Women, Transnationalism and Human Rights, Special Issue of the Radical History Review 101 (forthcoming, Spring 2008). Williams is currently working on the book manuscripts The Dope Wars: Street-Level Hustling and the Culture of Drugs in Post-1940s Urban America
Williams is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: “Nonviolence and Long Hot Summers: Welfare Rights Struggles in the 1960s,” Nonviolent Relationality: Rethinking Gandhi in the World for Orient Longman’s new series on “Gandhi Studies” (forthcoming); “Race, Dismantling the “Ghetto,” and Housing Mobility: Considering the Polikoff Proposal,” Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Summer 2006; “Black Women, Urban Politics, and Engendering Black Power,” The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era, edited by Peniel E. Joseph (New York, Routledge, 2006); “Nonviolence and Long Hot Summers: Welfare Rights Struggles in the 1960s” for Borderlands E-Journal, Vol 4, No. 3, 2005; “Raising the Curtain: Performance, History, and Pedagogy,” Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement; “We’re Tired of Being Treated Like Dogs: Poor Women and Power Politics,” The Black Scholar, Special Edition on Black Power Studies: A New Scholarship, Fall/Winter 2001, 31-41.
Awards: Williams is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Student Government’s Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award for the Arts and Humanities, CWRU, 2004;
Postdoctoral Research Leave Fellowship, American Association of University Women American Educational Foundation, July 2002-June 2003;
Nominee for the Carl F. Wittke Award, University-wide Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award, Case Western Reserve University, Spring 2001 & Spring 2000;
W.P. Jones Presidential Faculty Development Fund Award, CWRU, supported research and travel, Fall 2000;
Nominee for the Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award, Undergraduate Student Government, CWRU, Spring 1999;
Selected to appear in the Undergraduate Viewbook, featuring faculty and students. (Outstanding undergraduates nominated faculty members.) Undergraduate Admissions Office, CWRU, Summer 1999. Have appeared in each subsequent publication through 2002;
Glennan Teaching Fellowship, University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE), CWRU, 1999-2000;
Fellow, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University: National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “Teaching the Southern Civil Rights Movement, 1865-1965,” Summer 1998. Invitation Accepted;
Mellon Dissertation Fellowship, 1996-1997;
Fontaine Fellowship, 1992-1996;
Graduate/Professional Student Outstanding Achievement Award, Women of Color Day, 1995;
Malcolm X Outstanding Service to the African-American Community, Black Graduate and Professional Student Association (BGAPSA), 1994;
Paul Robeson Academic Excellence and Leadership, BGAPSA, 1994;
Graduation Commencement Speaker, UMCP, First black speaker in the University’s history, 1989.
Additional Info:
Williams is also Program Faculty, Ethnic Studies Program, 2003-present, Steering Committee Member, 2003-2005, and Program Faculty, Women Studies, 2000 – present at Case Western University.

Personal Anecdote

In 1985, I headed off to college at the University of Maryland College Park without any idea that I would eventually earn a PhD. The daughter of federal government employees, I would be the first person in my immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree. After my freshman year I knew I wanted to be a writer and somehow make a living doing it, and was fortunate to earn an internship at the Baltimore Evening Sun. I was supposed to be primarily an editor’s gopher, but thankfully I met newspaper reporters who mentored me. One gave me one of my first in-the-field assignments: I had to cover a story about a community program in the “projects” – residential places in inner cities held in disdain and fear. When I think back on that moment, I sometimes wonder whether I showed trepidation, or had the reporter simply felt the need to assure me (a young, green journalism student) that I would both be safe and do fine. Once we arrived at the public housing complex, I met black mothers, including teen parents, who were raising families with limited resources and navigating austere and neglected neighborhoods. This assignment eventually led to my visiting, and writing about, a neighborhood and church-based parenting enrichment program that served primarily black teen mothers and a few teen fathers.

Two more newspaper internships (including one with the New York Times) and three years later, I graduated UMCP as the first black undergraduate to receive its highest honor of salutatorian and commencement speaker in its 187-year history. That same year, 1989, I began my career as a night-time general assignment reporter. But I soon discovered, that overall, the daily new events I was assigned (including dog shows and numerous weather stories, not on the Hurricane Katrina level of importance) failed to elicit my excitement or fulfill my vision of engaging in useful intellectual inquiry. I had promised myself that in five years maximum I would go back to school, or if I did not like my job in two to three years. So in 1991 at the two-year mark, I decided to seek a PhD in History. After a couple years as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and always a native daughter of Baltimore, I resolved to focus my research on housing policy and marginalized people’s struggles in my hometown, particularly those of poor African American women.

My first book, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality, and many of my subsequent articles, owe themselves to that moment in 1986 – alongside, of course, other intervening experiences (for as historians know there are always multiple shaping influences) – that launched me on a compelling journey. It was, and still is, a historical (and, for me, professional and personal) journey that has exposed decades of entrenched and systemic race, gender, and economic inequality; institutional intransigence; misanthropy and societal disgust; human impotence, pain, and fortitude; and intense struggle and magnificent gumption. Listen to Goldie Baker, a public housing and welfare rights activist who died in 2006 after over 40 years of social struggle. She took seriously challenging those in power – no matter their race. And because of that “they thought I was one crazy nigger. They wasn’t used to that [laughs]. Oh, believe me, they wasn’t used to no nigger talking to them … like that”!

My next book project on street-level hustling, illicit narcotics, and urban culture after World War II is taking me on another overlapping journey – one where men and women found money, escape, pleasure, death, ‘freedom,’ and misery in a society that policed the boundaries of opportunity, morality, and belonging, in a society constituted by hierarchies and dreams of possibility. I don’t know where this particular scholarly journey ultimately will land me, but I do know (and am still discovering) the numerous places that the illicit (and licit) high has landed the many people that I’ve known personally and am now meeting historically.


By Rhonda Y. Williams

  • Within a couple decades of moving into Lafayette Courts on December 10, 1955, Shirley Wise had married and separated from her children’s father, held several jobs, attended Cortez Peters Business School, The Politics of Public Housing Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality JPG and become a beautician. Possessing a sense of community belonging, she became active in the Parents-Teachers Association and Lafayette Courts Mothers’ Club. But Shirley Wise avoided controversy and “leadership” roles….Between 1955 and 1970, Shirley Wise shed her timidity as she learned more about her rights: her civil rights, legal rights, tenants’ rights. By the early 1970s, the petite Wise had made an unpaid career of advocating for the poor in her housing complex and citywide. Before her political awakening Shirley Wise often said, “[L]et somebody else take care of that…. Anything that was really rocking the boat, I wasn’t into that until I found out I had the legal right to do that – rock the boat.” Shirley Wise’s transformation—her heightened consciousness of power relations, inequality, and rights—mirrored that of other poor black women living in cities. As black freedom movements and anti-poverty programs grew in northern cities, rights, struggle, power, control, respect, and dignity became popular words – and goals. — Rhonda Williams in “The Politics of Public Housing Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”About Rhonda Y. Williams
  • “Well-researched, well-written…. Highly recommended.” — Choice review of “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “There are far too few books from the perspective of poor black women, even fewer that give them the credit they deserve for pushing local, state, and federal governments to fulfill the promises of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. Rhonda Williams’ beautifully written and sweeping narrative makes fresh and important contributions to urban history, African-American women’s history, and the history of poverty policy in this country.” — Annelise Orleck reviewing “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “A remarkable piece of work, doing for Baltimore what Making the Second Ghetto did for Chicago. Williams brings welcome new light to bear on the struggle of poor black women for respectability and inclusion, inclusion on their own terms. Drawing on a rich data set covering forty year, Williams renders vivid portraits of individuals while also conveying a clear conception of the changing societal trends and public policies with which they had to contend.” — Charles Payne reviewing “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • The Politics of Public Housing presents a new face and place of civil rights struggle—poor women in the Baltimore `projects’ and their mobilization for adequate housing, income, education, and dignity. Rhonda Williams has written an illuminating and provocative study of black women who waged their own war on poverty in the 1950s and 1960s.” — Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham reviewing “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “An innovative study of the history of the activist work of low-income black women. Deeply researched and eloquently rendered, this book provides a new model for understanding urban political history – not from the bottom up, but from the inside out.” — Barbara Dianne Savage reviewing “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “Moving from the New Deal and World War II through the War on Poverty and the new social movements of the 1970s, The Politics of Public Housing illuminates the grassroots activism of poor black women for decent shelter and adequate income in fresh and surprising ways. After Williams, scholars will have to consider housing as a major domain of the welfare state. Hers is a most important study.” — Eileen Boris reviewing “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “Williams has exquisitely and mercifully corrected the deeply etched image of public housing as an utter failure. Her carefully researched, well-written, and critically balanced study of public housing forces housers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists alike to reconsider the pall of negativism that at least since 1957 has beclouded all conversation about public housing and about the enduring need for government support for decent, low-income housing.” — Journal of American History review of “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “Her carefully researched volume chronicles the personal lives and political activism of the low-income women who voiced their claims for ‘rights, respect, and representation’ in public housing and beyond. Using personal histories culled from more than 50 interviews, Williams vividly demonstrates these women’s setbacks and triumphs…. this is a valuable look at social welfare policy.” — Publishers Weekly review of “The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality”
  • “I have never learned as much as I have from this course [Introduction to American History]. The teacher, she is inspiring.”… “Dr. Williams is the most passionate scholar in the History Department whom I have worked with.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, February 3, 2008 at 10:56 PM

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1 Comment

  1. This unique article, “083: Rhonda Y. Williams,
    40 | History Editor… Bonnie K. Goodman” indicates that
    you truly know just what exactly you are writing about!
    I absolutely agree with your blog. Thank you ,Shawna


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