Edward Christopher Williams was one of the most versatile figures in Washington, D.C. during the 1920s. A gifted educator and an excellent translator of Romance languages, Williams' writing career was cut short by a sudden illness that claimed his life in December 1929. During the 1920s, he wrote the Exile, an Italian classical drama in two acts; the Sheriffs Children, an adaptation of Charles Chestnut's work by the same title; and The Chasm, a drama.
From 1925 to 1927, he authored a series of articles based on the flaws of Washingtons black society entitled "Letters of Davy Carr, A True Story of Colored Vanity Affair." These articles appeared in the Messenger, a black journal. He also published poems and short stories, often anonymously and under the pseudonym of Bertiuccio Dantino.
Light-complected enough to "pass" for white, Williams acknowledged his African heritage and faced racial intolerance. Williams was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1871 as the only son of an interracial marriage between Daniel Williams, and Mary (Kilary) Williams of Tipperary, Ireland. He received his primary and secondary education from the public schools of Cleveland. In 1892, he graduated from Adelbert College of Case Western Reserve University as valedictorian of his class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He also played on the varsity baseball team.
Soon after graduation, Williams accepted the Assistant Librarian position at his alma mater, where he initially prepared the plan of organization of the Library School and taught courses in collection development. In 1898, he not only earned a promotion to Library Director at Case Western Reserve University, but also took sabbatical in order to attend the New York State Library School in Albany. After completing the two-year Masters Degree program in one year, Williams returned to the University and continued to serve admirably. When Case Western Reserve established the Library School in 1904, Williams taught courses in Reference Work, Bibliography, Public Documents, and Book Selection.
In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he was a founding member of the Ohio Library Association (OLA) and lectured at the Ohio Institute of Library workers, which held its annual meetings each year at OLA.
In 1902, he married Ethel Chestnut, the eldest daughter of the distinguished black writer, Charles Chestnut. They had one son.
For reasons unknown, Williams left the University in 1909 to become the Principal of the M Street High School (later named Dunbar High School) in Washington, DC. Seven years later, he accepted the Head Librarian position at Howard University and stayed there for thirteen years. While there, he increased the budget, improved the collection, and directed the library's training class. Simultaneously, as Professor of German and Romance Languages, he taught Italian, French, and German.
Earlier in his career, he translated documents from French, German, Italian, and Spanish. At one time, he received an offer to become a translator of Italian and Spanish documents for a collection published by the A. H. Clark Company. In Washington, he lived at 912 Westminister Street, NW.
Although Williams had a passion for libraries and languages, he also nurtured the black renaissance in Washington. In addition to his three dramas, poems, and articles, he committed himself to establishing and supporting literary groups. Through them, he would fight for his cause: racial tolerance in American society.
Shortly after his arrival in the City in 1909, the Librarian joined the Mu-So-Lit Club, initially established in 1905 for black males of "high class." Among their various topics, members of this organization liked to discuss literature. In 1911, the Club honored the memory of the famous black poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Williams helped organize this effort. Williams believed that black authors should address social and political inequities in their works. In 1916, he used his organizational talent to help form a drama committee for the local NAACP. In the same year, the committee sponsored a showing of Rachel, a play by Angelina Grimke that emphasized the evils of lynching.
By the end of World War I, Williams became more resolved in his efforts. In 1918, he took a leading role in forming the Literary Lovers, a social club whose members would focus on "race or group consciousness." He introduced poet Carrie Clifford to the mixed-gender group. In keeping with the historic protest theme of black literature, Clifford's 1922 collection of poetry, The Widening Light, meshed perfectly with Williams' objective of "social equality, political rights, and cultural parity . . . ."
In 1921, Williams almost became affiliated with the efforts of celebrated writer Jean Toomer. Like Langston Hughes, Toomer not only disliked Washington's racial segregation but also found fault with the caste condition of black Washington. Toomer wanted to establish a group of mulattoes whose members would study and deal with issues within the race. Although Williams took part in a meeting, the group never jelled.
Williams continued to juggle his library work with that of his literary pursuits. Because of his thirst for knowledge, he took leave from Howard in 1929 to study for a Ph.D. in Library Science at Columbia University.
He unexpectedly died on December 24, 1929 at Freedman's Hospital. Three days later, Howard's President, Dr. Mordecai Johnson, presided over the funeral at Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel on campus. The Librarian was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
Williams' biographers recognize him as the best trained black librarian of his day. They have also observed that had he lived, he could have become one of black America's most highly regarded creative writers.
Dyson, Walter. Howard University: The Capstone of Negro Education, A History: 1867-1940. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1940.
Johnson, Ronald M. "Those Who Stayed: Washington Black Writers of 1920." Crisis 23 (February 1922): 484-499.
Josey, E. J. "Edward Christopher Williams: Librarians Librarian." Negro History Bulletin 33 (March 1970): 70 - 77.
Josey, E. J. and Shokley, Ann A., eds. Handbook of Black Librarianship. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1977.
Logan, Rayford, W. Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867-1967. New York: New York University Press, 1969.
Polks Washington City Directory. Washington, DC: R. L. Polk, 1920- 1929.
Porter, Dorothy. "Edward Christopher Williams." In Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, 63. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.
"Pro. Williams Librarian at H.U. Dies Suddenly." Washington Bee 27 December 1929.
"Some Schoolmen." Crisis 10 (July 1915): 118-120.
Sinnette, Elinor, ed. Black Bibliophiles and Collectors: Preservers of Black History. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1990.
Wright, Arthuree, ed. "Edward Christopher Williams, 1871- 1929." Howard University Libraries. <138.238.41254/williams. html>
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003