Black History Month Spotlight: Robert Lee Williams II

Today, the Center for Advanced Hindsight continues our celebration of Black History Month by highlighting another African American scholar whose work has been foundational in psychology and behavioral science: Dr. Robert Lee Williams II.

You may not have heard of Dr. Robert Lee Williams II (1930-2020), but you have almost certainly heard of his work.  Born in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era, he had to overcome considerable obstacles to become a psychologist. His mother, Rosie Lee Mitchell, had received no more than a few years’ schooling. All the same, she knew the value of formal education: when Williams was little, she told him “Boy, go get that piece of paper.

Williams took those words to heart, but his path was not easy. During his junior year in high school, an aptitude test suggested he was better suited for manual labor than intellectual pursuits. This was a serious blow to his confidence – but those around Williams recognized his brilliance and convinced him to persevere.

His determination paid off: by 1955 he was the first African American psychologist to work at a state mental health facility anywhere in Arkansas, and he didn’t stop there. In 1961, he earned his doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis.

In the first decade of his career, Dr. Williams excelled as a practitioner, serving as the chief psychologist of the Jefferson Barracks Veteran Affairs Hospital in St. Louis and as a consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health.  In 1968, he helped found the National Association of Black Psychologists; as its second president, he crafted and disseminated a 10-Point Plan that helped build a pipeline for future generations Black psychologists across the United States.

In 1970, Dr. Williams embarked on the next stage of his career as a professor of psychology and Chair of Black Studies at Washington University. In this role, he founded a curriculum that was unique and cutting-edge, inspiring similar departments across the country. Through his Institute for Black Studies, he conducted research designed to shine a light on the many ways in which American culture and society was systematically embedded with anti-Blackness.

For example, Dr. Williams created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (BITCH) – an IQ test written with language drawn from the African American experience. African Americans routinely outscored White Americans on the BITCH, proving Williams’ point that the tests of the day – much like the one he had taken himself over twenty years before – were built on biased language and assumptions.

It is perhaps in the field of language where Dr. Williams had his greatest impact. In 1975, his book “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks” explained how the English spoken by African Americans was a dialect of its own rather than a substandard version of conventional English as many believed. Prior to Williams’ use of Ebonics, terms like “Nonstandard Negro English” were openly pejorative. Though the term Ebonics has now largely been superseded by African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the call to understand African-American use of language as cultural rather than pathological is still critically important in today’s times.

Dr. Williams’ service to psychology is difficult to overstate. Not only did his work shine light on the many ways in which bias was embedded in ostensibly objective fields such as intelligence testing, his administrative work and university service helped inspire many other Black students to follow him into the field. Gerald Early, the current chair of African and African American Studies at Washington University, is just one of many who remember Dr. Williams fondly: “He gave young scholars like myself a lot of inspiration and hope that I could be tenured because he was a tenured professor at Washington University, where at the time there weren’t very many black professors.

Vernon J. Mitchell, a lecturer in American Culture at Washington University, agrees.

He was able to tap in to us and provide a sense of both urgency, care and concern and confidence that allowed us to be our best selves as not just students, but student leaders. He expected us to be like him and do amazing things.

As both an outstanding scholar and an inspiring mentor, Dr. Williams has created a legacy that has not ended with his recent death at the age of 90. His contributions to the behavioral sciences will likely only continue to grow with time.