Women’s History Month: Del State’s Dr. Harriet Williams

Written by Carlos Holmes

In the 130-year history of Delaware State University, Dr. Harriet Ruth Williams is known as one of its prolific administrative “utility players.”

That baseball term – a designation for a player that can play multiple positions – is wholly appropriate for Dr. Williams within the context of the many roles she played at Del State that went far beyond her primary title as the longtime chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Dr. Williams spent the vast majority of her 83 years actively connected Delaware’s only Historically Black Institution of Higher Education. Born in 1915 in Cheswold, Del., although there is an absence of records relating to her secondary school years, it is probable that she attend the high school on the Del State campus. There were only two high schools for blacks in the segregated state at that time, and it seems less unlikely that would have attended the other one, Howard High School in Wilmington.

She went on to complete Associate and Bachelor of Sciences degrees in Biology from the State College for Colored Students in 1932 and 1934, respectively. After remaining at her alma mater as an instructor assistant, Harriet than left the state to enroll at Atlanta University where she completed a Master of Science in 1937. She later did further studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

By 1943, Harriet returned to Del State, where she would remain for the rest of her life – primarily as the chair of the College’s Department of Chemistry, an academic leadership post that she would hold from 1954 to 1989. Although she reached the institution then-mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1986, the Board of Trustees permitted President Luna I. Mishoe to arrange a special contract that permitted her to continue teaching chemistry until the mid-1990s.

Dr. Donald A. Blakey, Class of 1958, took several chemistry courses under her. “She was very easy going. Yet she was demanding, but not threatening,” he said.

Concurrent with performing the duties of teacher and department chair during her 50-year-plus Del State career, Harriet was the go-to person fill administrative leadership vacancies that occurred during her tenure.  Those included: director of Lore Residence Hall for College Women, Acting Chairperson of the Division of Natural Science and Mathematics, Acting Registrar, Director of Alumni Affairs and Public Relations, Assistant to the Director of Admissions, Interim Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs, Director of the Minority Biomedical Research Program, and Administrative Council member.

She served as the executive secretary for the Alumni Association from 1952-1966, and was one of the driving forces behind the construction of the Alumni House that was completed on College Road in 1967 (demolished in the late 1990s for the construction of the University Courtyard Apartments Complex).

In 1970, Delaware State College awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Science. In 1994, Dr. Williams was inducted in the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women in 1994.

Through her long tenure Dr. Williams served under six Del State presidents and one acting president (Grossley, Gregg, Thomasson, Chapman, Holland, L. Mishoe, DeLauder). Among alumni and past faculty members, she is widely recognized as a major contributor to the growth and progress of Delaware State University.

Dr. Williams is believed to be the first Del State official to begin earnest researching and writing about the history of Delaware State University. According to the alumni publication The Echo, she had begun writing “The History of Delaware State University,” but that work was halted by her passing.

“There are documents on the history of Delaware State University written by Dr. Harriet Williams that served as a starting point for my research on the institution’s history,” said Carlos Holmes, the current University Historian. “I have been able to pick up where she left off.”

Dr. Williams is also credited with playing an integral role in the Loockerman Hall Restoration Project. Reportedly she instrumental in the acquisition of the furnishings that are reflective of the 18th Century Georgian manor décor.

Throughout her life, she never married.

“I think she was married to Del State,” Dr. Blakey said.

She passed away on January 8, 1999 at her home on State College Road. Ever engaged with the University, at the time of her death, Dr. Williams was serving as a special consulted to then-President William B. DeLauder as well as a member of his administrative council.

In honor of her decades of dedication and faithfulness as a faculty member, administrator and alumna, her funeral was held in the Education and Humanities Theatre on campus.

Upon her passing, The Echo noted the following:

“Dr. Harriet Ruth Williams was a dedicated educator and a devoted alumna. Her keen and dynamic teaching skills inspired and enabled her students to reach their goals and to obtain successful careers. Her ability to give unselfishly of her time and gifts helped her Alumni Association and her University to greater heights.”