February 28, 2021

Chris Williams: Living Farmer’s Legacy

UMW James Farmer Multicultural Center Assistant Director Chris Williams. Photo by Karen Pearlman.

UMW James Farmer Multicultural Center Assistant Director Chris Williams. Photo by Karen Pearlman.

At the University of Mary Washington, the late James L. Farmer Jr. is known as the civil rights icon who organized the 1961 Freedom Rides and as a Mary Washington history professor who regaled his students with personal stories in his big, booming baritone.

But to Chris Williams, who has served as assistant director of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center since 2017, Farmer was a friend and neighbor with a “great sense of humor.” Growing up in Spotsylvania, Williams became close to the man whose quest for justice and equality would later inspire his own life’s work.

This week, Williams shared his story on the new PBS series “American Portrait.” UMW alum Shawn Mitchell ‘20, who interned at PBS last fall, suggested that Williams respond to the prompt, “What is the tradition you carry on?” Williams’ video was selected from 11,000 submissions for the episode, titled “I Rise,” which aired Tuesday night.

“Our job here is to continue the legacy of Dr. Farmer’s work but also teach incoming students and colleagues about who this great man was and what he sacrificed and what he contributed to the betterment of American society,” Williams told The Free Lance-Star. The Washington Post and Associated Press also helped spread the word about Williams’ appearance, and he will be featured on WJLA during Black History Month.

Williams cites JFMC’s social justice, diversity and anti-racism advocacy work, showcased through programming such as cultural events, teach-ins, a human rights film series and an annual justice summit. To kick off Farmer Legacy 2020 – the 100th anniversary celebration of Farmer’s birth – UMW students and local residents traced the same route in Oct. 2019 that the Freedom Riders took to desegregate interstate travel.

They returned from that fall break trip with a “renewed sense of vigor and purpose,” said Williams, who is working with UMW faculty members and Fredericksburg officials to have a historical marker erected at the former bus station on Princess Anne and Wolfe streets, the first stop on the Freedom Riders’ journey. Their goal is to have the marker in place this year, the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

“My relationship with Dr. Farmer is why I wanted to do these projects,” Williams said. “He fulfilled his obligation and duty of making this society better than when he entered it. So should we.”

Q: What are some of the ways JFMC has continued to engage students during COVID?
A: We’ve created great online programming, which can be found at www.umw.edu/multicultural. This spring, we’ll have events for MLK, Black and Women’s History months, as well as the Islamic Cultural Celebration and Passover Seder.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Seeing our incredible students persevere, despite daily challenges on and off campus.

JFMC Assistant Director Chris Williams with some of his favorite record albums. A prolific music writer, Williams will teach a music history course at UMW this fall. Photo Credit: Sabrina Vaz-Holder/The Free Lance-Star.

JFMC Assistant Director Chris Williams with some of his favorite record albums. A prolific music writer, Williams will teach a music history course at UMW this fall. Photo Credit: Sabrina Vaz-Holder/The Free Lance-Star.

Q: The most challenging?
A: Trying to deal with the pandemic on both a professional and personal level.

Q: You’re a music journalist who has been published in Ebony, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, among others, and you were recently featured on Netflix’s “Hip-Hop Evolution.” What’s next?
A: This fall I’m teaching a UMW music department course that covers the intersection of culture, race, politics and music history. Our students will also get to hear some transformative music by legendary artists.

Q: Who are your favorite performing artists?
A: Stevie Wonder; Marvin Gaye; A Tribe Called Quest; Earth, Wind & Fire; and The Isley Brothers.

Q: What’s your motto?
A: Tell the truth.