Obituary: Longtime educator James Williams, 78, taught black history at American River College

05/14/2014 5:33 PM

05/14/2014 7:08 PM

James Williams, an educator who was an inspirational professor at American River College and a leader in the Sacramento NAACP, died April 29 at 78.

He died after “a very sudden illness,” his daughter Sonya Bohannon said. The cause was unknown, she said.

One of 13 children born to African American farmers in segregated Arkansas, Mr. Williams grew up believing that education was the ticket to a better life. With a master’s degree from California State University, Sacramento, he set out to share that dream as a teacher, including 25 years as a professor of U.S. history and African American history at American River College in Sacramento.

He joined ARC in 1970 and expanded the curriculum for African American history from a one-semester overview to a full-year course with greater depth on the struggles and contributions of blacks in America. He shared his experiences growing up under discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South and inspired students with gospel music that he sang in class.

“He was a very good singer,” said Cordia Wade, a retired ARC professor. “Sometimes he’d get so loud, I’d have to close my door.”

As a sponsor of the Black Student Union at ARC, along with Wade, Mr. Williams insisted that the group change its name to the Black Scholars Union to emphasize academic goals. Tall and big, with a friendly manner, he was popular as a teacher who encouraged students to see their own experiences in the context of earlier people and events that they discussed in class.

“He really stressed that African American history is everybody’s history, because it’s something that we all share,” said Bishop Parnell Lovelace Jr. of the Center of Praise Ministries in Sacramento, who attended ARC in 1980. “He challenged us to see ourselves as a continuation of history that is being made every day.”

Mr. Williams was a longtime member of the Sacramento NAACP and served two terms as president in the 1970s. He was active in the Sacramento Urban League and Alpha Phi Alpha Inc., an African American fraternity that promotes education and provides scholarships for young people.

Born May 16, 1935, in Pine Bluff, Ark., he moved with his parents and siblings to California. He graduated from high school in Fresno and earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fresno. He was an educator for 36 years, starting at junior highs and high schools in the Sacramento region.

After retiring from ARC in 1995, he continued to help young people as a mentor at Kennedy High School in Sacramento and a member of Brothers in Faith, a church-based group. He advised entrepreneurs as a volunteer with SCORE, a nonprofit group that helps small businesses get off the ground, and he helped build housing for families in Mexicali, Mexico, on missions sponsored by his church, First Covenant Church of Sacramento.

He also returned to the classroom as an aide to his wife, Roberta, an educator who had left her own retirement to teach first grade at Tahoe Elementary School in Sacramento.

“He read to small groups, did yard duty, whatever the kids needed,” his daughter said. “He loved children and promoting education.”

In addition to his daughter and his wife of 58 years, Mr. Williams is survived by a son, Raymond; three brothers, Claudie, David and Moses; two sisters, Ruthie Clark and Josephine Lee; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A service is set for 3 p.m. May 16 at First Covenant Church of Sacramento, 10933 Progress Court, Rancho Cordova. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to First Covenant Church of Sacramento for its annual mission trip to Mexicali, Mexico.

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