March 31, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: Charles B. Williams, 1919-1921

"...Williams had made a name for himself as a pastor and as a highly respected scholar and veteran professor of Greek and New Testament. His translation of the Greek New Testament, in progress while he served Howard, was an influential and important work, and remains in print. But, for all that, the Williams administration ended abruptly and bitterly..."

Charles B. WilliamsHoward College in the years 1917 through 1921 was greatly unsettled by the war in Europe. J. M. Shelburne took a leave of absence from Howard's presidency in order to serve in the military. After his resignation in March 1918, Howard's trustees appointed dean of faculty John C. Dawson to serve as acting president. But Dawson, too, was soon granted a leave of absence to serve in the U.S. Army Education Corp in France. Mathematics professor Theophilus R. Eagles then served as acting president (or acting-acting president) until the trustees finally secured a new president in mid-summer 1919.

On paper, at least, North Carolina native Charles Bray Williams seems to have been an ideal choice for the presidency of Howard College. According to his daughter, Charlotte Williams Sprawls, Williams was "the scholar in a farm family of six children," who lashed his Latin book to the handles of a plow so he could study while working. By 1919, Williams had made a name for himself as a pastor and as a highly respected scholar and veteran professor of Greek and New Testament. His translation of the Greek New Testament, in progress while he served Howard, was an influential and important work, and remains in print. But, for all that, the Williams administration ended abruptly and bitterly.

Like J. M. Shelburne, Williams sought to link Howard's future to Birmingham's, and his downfall was in leading a campaign to relocate the college closer to the heart of the city. As in the 1880s, supporters of moving Howard questioned the value of investing further in a campus whose isolation and aging facilities were seen to limit the college. Alumni opposed relocation, accurately pointing out that the move from Marion had bitterly divided state Baptists for decades. But faculty and trustees supported relocation, and in late summer 1920 Williams announced that the trustees had selected and purchased options on 120 acres in Woodlawn for a new campus, and had halted investment in the East Lake campus.

As the relocation debate simmered, Williams led a new endowment and debt reduction campaign, succeeding in a short time in eliminating all of Howard's outstanding debt, increasing the endowment to $400,000 and increasing faculty salaries 20 percent. Less than one month later, Williams announced yet another campaign. He proposed to raise an additional $500,000 to create an endowment of almost $1 million. This, he said, would allow the college to relocate, establish a hospital and a department for the study of medicine, and create "one of the finest technological departments, including a first-class engineering school, in the South." If his vision for Howard's future was off the mark, his vision of Birmingham's was uncanny. "The city needs an engineering school and other technical schools and it needs a great medical school," he said.

Alumni opposition to relocation, combined with the vagaries of the economy, foiled the president's plans for Howard and Birmingham. In early May 1921, Williams announced that he would be away for awhile and then simply never returned to office. There is more than a trace of bitterness in his letter of resignation, published in The Birmingham News several weeks after his departure:

Whereas, it seems impossible, in the face of the terrific financial depression, to raise in the near future the necessary one half million dollars for the moving of Howard College to Woodlawn Heights, according to resolutions adopted by the Board of Trustees; whereas, it is my conviction that my high ideal of the Greater Howard, for the education of thousands of youths for the glory of God, could scarcely, if at all, be realized at East Lake; whereas, I am convinced that under the circumstances, I could not serve God best, or help humanity most, or do my full duty to my family; Therefore, I do hereby tender to the Board of Trustees my resignation as president of Howard College to take effect June 1, 1921.

The letter also provides a tantalizing clue to Williams' sudden departure. "As a true sport I take my hat off to the winners of the game--the East Lake minority," Williams wrote. James F. Sulzby, Jr., on whose research and writing this series is based, noted that "the friends of Howard in East Lake concluded it would be easier to remove Dr. Williams from the presidency than to resist the removal of Howard College from their community." It isn't clear how they accomplished this. Sulzby wrote only that "personal unpleasantries and innuendos had caused Dr. Williams' tenure at the college to become complicated and ineffective." Williams' wife was ill during this period (and died shortly after), and that may have contributed to the pressures that drove him from Howard.

Whatever the cause of Williams' departure, it does not seem to have hindered his career. After leaving Howard he joined the faculty of Mercer University, then Union University, building a distinguished record of scholarship and service to the Baptist denomination.

Charles Bray Williams brought a spirit of religious revival to Howard, presided over record enrollments and admission to the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, raised large sums of cash for the endowment and found majority support for a bold institutional vision. It simply wasn't enough, but Williams eventually won vindication for the most controversial aspect of his vision. Construction of Howard College's new campus began in 1953, the year after his death.

In the wake of this troubled period of war, caretaker presidents and bitter internal struggles, Howard turned to a man who knew the college, knew the presidency and, perhaps most important, enjoyed the support of the entire Howard community.

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