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Gathering the Ghosts

Patricia J. Williams portrait
Patricia J. Williams. Photo by Jason Grow

The renowned writer and law professor Patricia J. Williams RI '18 pores through the more than 100 years of family papers that she’s giving to the Schlesinger Library.

"My family are pack rats,” Patricia J. Williams says. “They saved everything. They took pictures of everything. They kept detailed journals and scrapbooks; they published articles and books; and they often were themselves the subject of articles, particularly in the African American press.”

Williams, who holds the 2017–2018 Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Fellowship at Radcliffe, has donated 65 boxes (so far) of her family’s papers—spanning more than 100 years—to the Institute’s Schlesinger Library. It’s unusual for any family to collect papers over such a long period of time, but especially rare for an African American family. As Williams says, “Things get lost in a society as perpetually mobile as ours.” Her family is extraordinary in having the rare good fortune of being residentially stable, unusually well educated, and incredibly long-lived.

Williams herself earned her undergraduate degree from Wellesley and her law degree from Harvard in 1975; she has been a law professor for the past 30 years. Since 1991, she has taught at the Columbia University School of Law, where she is the James L. Dohr Professor. Among her many honors is a MacArthur Fellowship, awarded in 2000. For two decades, she has published a column titled “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” in the Nation. The author of four popular books and hundreds of articles, she thinks of herself as having parallel careers: one as a law professor, the other as a writer and journalist.

The Williams Family Papers Come to the Schlesinger Library

Williams didn’t decide to give her family’s papers to the library—that’s simply how things evolved. Kathryn Allamong Jacob, the Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library, got in touch with Williams and asked if she’d be willing to donate her own papers—“as a black feminist from a certain era,” as Williams puts it. “And I thought that was a fine idea.” Soon thereafter, Williams’s parents—in their late 90s—were dealing with health problems and needed to move, so the family home in Boston was put up for sale. But before the sale, Williams investigated the attic. “It was packed to the rafters,” she says, “and every room in the house was filled with boxes of letters and books and journals. Because we’re all writers, and we keep stuff.”

Not only was Jacob interested in the papers of Williams’s parents, but she visited Williams’s second home, on Martha’s Vineyard, to look at additional family papers. Then there were the archives of Williams’s aunt Marguerite in New York, a journalist who had been on the board of governors of the Overseas Press Club and one of the original United Nations correspondents. Marguerite had willed her apartment to Williams, so that was another trove she needed to deal with. Again, Williams chose the Schlesinger—which houses an array of African Americans’ papers—even though her aunt had already given some of her papers to the Amistad Research Center at Tulane, a repository that specializes in the history of African Americans and other ethnic minorities. “What she did not give to Amistad,” Williams says, “was the personal family stuff. That’s why it felt more logical to put everything in Massachusetts, where most of the family was from at the time this archive begins.”

Williams has read only parts of the vast archive she is giving to the Schlesinger. In her application for a Radcliffe fellowship, she said she intended to study the papers and begin a narrative, titled “Gathering the Ghosts” and covering four areas: “African American lives in Boston and Cambridge; the lives of African American college-educated women at a time when few women of any race went beyond high school; love letters describing both intraracial and interracial romance, commitment, and marriage; and photographs of African American family life dating from the late 1800s through the contemporary era.”

But, as often happens, things changed. This past October, Williams’s mother died, just weeks before she would have turned 100. “She was the long memory of this project,” Williams says. “I talked to her frequently. Can you remember . . . ? I’m very lucky to have had her as long as I did. And I realize that now I am the memory that’s left.”

Williams tells about a condolence note that Jane Kamensky—the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and a professor in the Department of History—wrote to her, saying that the archive could be like an afterlife. “I do feel that, just that phrase,” Williams says. “When I walked over to the library this morning—it was the first time I’d been back since my mother died—I thought, yes, this is going to be very comforting.”

Since her mother’s death, Williams’s idea for a long narrative with four strands has shifted. Now she plans to write a collection of related essays—a form she has used before and of which she’s a master (see below excerpts from Open House). “I’m going to follow my instinct and write about my mother, because that’s what is haunting me,” she says. “Some of my best writing comes when I’m in that emotionally affected place and allow myself to see what comes up.”

Williams has also thought about making larger changes. “I’m thinking about learning to be more of an historian, because this sort of research is what I truly want to do. This project has given me a passion that I didn’t know I had.”

An Abundance of Family Stories

“People underestimate how important the written word is in African American culture,” she says. “They forget that the entire jurisprudence of the 20th century was about trying to integrate schools. It wasn’t just about being the black face in the classroom; it was about getting the education and using the books and machines and technology in those schools. Many African American families guard documentation fiercely, and my family is one of them.”

Williams’s conversation—and her books—are rich with compelling stories about her family. One is the story of Old Pete, or the Walkaway Slave, as he’s known in the family. Before Emancipation, when Williams’s great-grandfather on her father’s side was in his 70s, he walked away from the swamps of north Florida, where he had been enslaved. According to family legend, Old Pete walked very, very slowly, so no one noticed. He made it to a “maroon” colony in South Carolina, where runaway slaves, Native Americans, and abolitionist missionaries lived. After settling there, he married a younger woman with whom he had eight children, all of whom survived. Williams’s grandfather, the eldest, lived to be 96, and the other children lived to be over 100. Williams’s father was proud, she says, of helping his grandfather, Old Pete, learn to read. “He was just so determined,” Williams says of her great-grandfather.

A story she tells about a more recent event involves Williams’s favorite writer, the great Nobel Prize–winner Toni Morrison. “I met her when my son was five weeks old,” Williams says. “I had contributed to an anthology she put together, and we were all on a panel. I brought my son to her and she kissed him on the forehead. So my son was baptized by Toni Morrison.”

In the years to come, these stories will be augmented by the tales sitting in those 65 boxes and in the cartons yet to arrive at the library. Williams and other writers will gather more ghosts to advance the larger story of African American life.

From Storyteller Patricia J. Williams

Excerpts from

Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own


This is who I am. A soft-spoken, fiftysomething mush of a minority, deferential but strong, really I am. I confess to a tendency to collapse under rightish pressure, but I try to compensate by writing brave, leftish articles for the Nation under the Joan of Arc byline “Diary of a Mad Law Professor.” I teach courses in contracts, consumer protection, history of civil rights, theories of equality, and general issues of law and public policy. My hair is so unruly that new students get mesmerized by it before they finally manage to wrestle themselves back down to eye contact with me. I am an anxious mother, a worrier by habit, and therefore a pretty decent lawyer. My skin is a soft custardy mustardy brown, with lots of freckles and imperfections.

* * *


My grandfather used to tell us about the white doctor in one small Georgia town who, while “kindly” enough to have delivered many of the black children in the area, had named all of them after medical procedures, as in “Appendectomy Jones” or “Hydropsy Smith.” It was very moving as my grandfather described it: The illiteracy of the parents meant that they were actually grateful for the grand-sounding names.

It took a while for the bitterness to set in.

* * *


“Slavery wasn’t that long ago,” my mother once cautioned. “I grew up talking to people who had been slaves.”

How, when, where, I asked her. And my mother described her experiences playing chamber music at Resthaven, a black nursing home founded by a man she remembers only as Mr. Benjamin. His family had also come up from the Deep South. He had gone to law school, had become a solo practitioner, and was doing well. With some help from the Episcopal Church, he opened Resthaven in honor of his mother. She had been born in slavery but ran to Boston after the Emancipation Proclamation and worked as a maid while making sure her son got a good education.

Nursing homes were a new thing then. In those days there were very few places for an elderly person other than home or a boardinghouse. But there was a new and urgent need for some kind of care facility because a whole generation of ex-slaves was growing old. These were people who had worked as servants all their lives, who had little or no family. While the feudal system of black servants living with the families that formerly owned them continued to exist for a while in many places in the South, the North was different. Their new employers didn’t often house them for life, didn’t dream of feeding or caring for them after they grew too feeble to work. The ones hardest hit were the domestics who had spent years “living in.” They were largely a childless female population, elderly women who had coped with the demands of being “just like family,” but who, at the end of their tenure, had no place in the world to go.

And that is how my mother came to offer the weekly solace of her cello to an audience of former slaves.

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, copyright © 2004 by Patricia J. Williams

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