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The accomplishments of Professor James H. Williams Jr. of the Department of Mechanical Engineering have been recognized in Aetna's 1994 Calendar of African-American History and in the Time-Life book, African Americans: Voices of Triumph. The book profiles leaders in science and engineering who are black.
The calendar also honors the mentors of the 12 people signaled out for recognition. In Professor Williams' case, the mentor is his mother, Margaret Louise Mitchell, who died in 1991. The September page of the calendar notes:
"Williams tackles projects that demand, among other things, great confidence in one's abilities. Williams first witnessed this confidence through his mother.after his parents divorced when he was eight years old. `My mother believed it was vital to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself and to believe in your ability to do whatever it is you want to do. I saw that in her, a young black woman with two children, who had to make it on her own,' Williams said. Until she remarried, Margaret Louise Mitchell supported her children by working in a school cafeteria in Newport News, VA. Williams said he sought to show his appreciation for her efforts and sacrifice through his studies.." The calendar also shows a photo of Professor Williams' mother when she was 20 and pregnant with him and this quote from him: "One of the things that brought me an enormous amount of pleasure when I was a kid was simply to bring my report card home to my mom, and watch her face, just to see her smile."
Voices of Triumph says of Professor Williams: "Williams was born and went to school in Newport News, Virginia, and worked in the Apprentice School of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Customarily, the few blacks in the school were steered toward blue-collar training as electricians, machinists and welders. Williams, however, became the first African American to be chosen for the company's design track, and performed so well that he was sent on to MIT. Because of his love of teaching Williams returned to MIT after his stint in England (he earned the PhD from Cambridge University). He has combined his great popularity as a teacher with a lonelier role as a prod to the university's administration. He wants MIT not only to expand its outreach to black students but also to .faculty. "
Also profiled in the book is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a member of the MIT Corporation, who was the first black woman to earn a PhD from MIT (1973) and the first black woman in the country to receive a doctorate in physics.
A version of this article appeared in the June 1, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 35).