Heather Williams Appointed Sixth Presidential Professor at Penn

Heather Andrea Williams has been named the sixth Presidential Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, effective July 1.  Williams will be Presidential Professor and Professor of Africana Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.

The announcement was made today by Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price.

“Heather Williams is a celebrated teacher and distinguished scholar whose work addresses immensely important and long neglected issues in American history, including the liberating role of self-education among slaves and their families," Gutmann said. “With broad expertise in law and the humanities, Heather exemplifies Penn’s commitment to integrating knowledge across disciplines to enable our students –- and our nation and world -– to understand and address society’s most difficult questions.”

Williams is one of the world’s leading historians of the experience of slavery in the 19th century. Her award-winning first book, Self-Taught: African-American Education in Slavery and Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), argued that education was inseparable from the fight against slavery. It used extensive archival research to retrace the importance of literacy for African Americans across the 19th century, from the pre-Civil War era through emancipation and its aftermath. 

Her second book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), charts the decades-long searches that followed the forced separations of African American families by slavery, especially in the 1860s and 1870s. 

Williams’ work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Ford Foundation and National Humanities Center, among others. 

“Heather Williams promises to be an extraordinarily vital new member of the Penn community,” Price said. “She brings with her a reputation as an innovative and life-changing teacher, and her background as a lawyer will make her an exciting catalyst for interdisciplinary education across the University.” 

Williams is currently professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she has taught since 2004, following two years as a Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellow at Smith College. She earned a Ph.D. in American studies in 2002 from Yale University and a J.D. 1981 and B.A. in 1978 from Harvard University. She served as an assistant attorney general and section chief for the State of New York and as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, among other leading positions in public service law. 

“The appointment of Heather Williams,” said Steven Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, “represents a superb addition to Penn’s new Department of Africana Studies, one that also brings further depth and distinction to the School’s overall strengths in African-American history and the history of the 19th-century American South.”

Presidential Professorships, supported in part by a $2 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts and originating in the Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence, first issued in 2011, are awarded to exceptional scholars, of any rank, who contribute to faculty eminence through diversity across the University.



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