SUNY New Paltz community mourns Black Studies President AJ Williams-Myers


AJ Williams-Myers (left) receives the Heritage Award at SUNY New Paltz Alumni Reunion 2017.

Dr. Albert J. Williams-Myers, professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz and 37-year chair of its black studies department, died after a brief illness on Monday, July 12, at the age of 82. Known widely as AJ, Dr Williams-Myers was renowned for his expertise in African American history, particularly in the Hudson Valley, and was a prolific author and publisher of books, articles scholars and research guides in his field. Among his influential works are Long Hammering: Essays on the formation of an African-American presence in the Hudson Valley until the beginning of the 20e Century and On the Morning Tide: African Americans, History, and Methodology in the Historical Tide and Tide of the Hudson River Society.

William-Myers taught at SUNY New Paltz from 1979 until his retirement in 2016, and received a Heritage Award at the College’s 2017 Alumni Reunion celebration. Also in 2017, the AJ Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center Library was established at 43 Gill Street in the Ponckhockie neighborhood of Kingston, with 15 boxes of books from the Williams-Myers personal archives forming the core of its collection. The library’s mission is “to promote literacy through teaching and learning from the experience of African roots, and to honor and encourage the transmission of history through written and oral history. , speech, paintings, cultural artefacts and other forms of artistic expression ”.

In an announcement of his death to the college community, SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian noted that even after his retirement, Williams-Myers remained active in the community, as a member of the board. from the Huguenot Historical Society, an administrator of the African American Institute in New York, a member of the New York State Freedom Trail Commission and historian for the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center in New York. “One of my most vivid memories of AJ was his compelling commentary at a relocation ceremony for African-American remains in the historic French church cemetery on Rue Huguenot, the first burial there since the Civil War and the very first non-European human remains, ”Christian recalls.

“As a productive and engaged teacher and researcher, AJ was well known for his ability to awaken students to reflect on the history and lives of people who lived in other eras, and what this has done. to do with his students’ lives and understanding of who they are. He was particularly adept at helping his students and others understand the historical roots of deep-rooted racism in America. He helped his students understand trafficking slave girl and how she and her legacy unfolded in the Hudson Valley and other parts of the northern United States.

Born in 1939 in Jersey City, New Jersey, to George Frank Williams and Bessie Irene Mallard, the young “Albie” had three brothers, Fred, Marvin and James, and three sisters, Virginia, Marjorie and Doris. He worked as a newspaper seller. At the age of 13, after his father abandoned the family, Albert Williams was adopted by a local clergyman named C. Kilmer Myers and added his last name to his. Reverend Myers helped the promising young man apply to universities and get financial aid.

During her freshman year of college, Williams-Myers fell in love with a young woman named Janice who had come from Colorado to volunteer with young drug addicts on the Reverend Myers Mission on the Lower East Side. The two married in 1962, and Williams-Myers pursued his doctorate in African history at UCLA. He wrote his thesis on “The Nsenga of Central Africa: Political and economic aspects of the history of the clans, from 1700 to the end of the 19the Century.”

The couple joined the Peace Corps in 1966, fighting tuberculosis in Malawi, where the first of their two daughters was born. AJ and Janice – educator, addiction counselor, civil rights activist and trade unionist – have been married for over 50 years and have enjoyed a vibrant intellectual partnership; she died before him in March of this year.

Williams-Myers’ many trips to Africa to do doctoral research included a tense confrontation with an armed rebel during Mozambique’s civil war, as he recounted in a 2019 lecture recorded by the TMI Project as part of his “Black Stories Matter: Truth to Power” series ( As an academic, he defined himself as an “Africanist” and majored in African history during his early years teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota.

In 1979, he was hired by SUNY New Paltz to replace the resigned Black Studies chair; but there were not enough majors in the department at the time to complete an African history course. Thus, he was forced to change the focus of his research towards the African-American experience. “I realize that I can use the same tools to reconstruct the history of enslaved people that I used when I was studying the African presence in Africa,” he writes in his TMI project memoir. Williams-Myers quickly became the leading expert on black history in the Hudson Valley and a much sought-after consultant.

The historic presence of Sojourner Truth, who spent his youth in Esopus and New Paltz, resonated strongly with Williams-Myers from the moment he arrived in the region. “Sojourner always walks with me,” he wrote. “I can smell it. I talk with her. Sometimes I wonder if I am the embodiment of someone she once knew, someone who was enslaved with her.

Williams-Myers’ passing sparked a wave of appreciation for his life’s work among his colleagues in the Hudson Valley. On his Facebook page, the library at the AJ Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center called him “an intellectual giant, friend, mentor, and community leader … Without Dr. Williams-Myers, our community would be hard pressed to find books by” Major stories about African Americans in the Hudson Valley… We will continue to mourn AJ, but we are all blessed to have such a monumental ancestor in our corner.

The library plans to honor the Williams-Myers legacy with a public ceremony at a later date. Funeral arrangements will be announced by Copeland-Hammerl Funeral Home in New Paltz.

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