The Reverend Canon Frederick Boyd Williams, 1939-2006
Frederick Boyd Williams was a prominent African American Episcopal priest who worked internationally on behalf of Civil Rights and social justice movements, advocated for Africa and the African Diaspora within the Anglican Communion, and served tirelessly to improve the social, political, and artistic life of his parish, the Harlem community, and New York City.
Williams was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 23, 1939, the son of Walter Howard Williams and Matlyn Hettye. He showed an early aptitude for mathematics and was admitted at age 15 to Morehouse College in Atlanta, from which he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1959. Williams then matriculated as a postulant at General Theological Seminary in 1960 where he went on to receive his Bachelor's of Sacred Theology.
The Rt. Rev. John Vander Horst of the Diocese of Tennessee ordained Williams as a deacon on June 29, 1963. He began his curacy at St. Luke’s Church in Washington, D.C. where he also assisted in prison ministry. The Rt. Rev. William F. Creighton of the Diocese of Washington ordained Williams to the priesthood on January 11, 1964. Williams’ ministry in Washington coincided with several important events in the national Civil Rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington.
In 1966 Williams was called to serve as Vicar of St. Clement’s Church, Inkster, Michigan which was established as an African-American mission of the Diocese of Michigan in 1936. Williams became its first rector in 1967. During his tenure in Michigan, Williams continued to develop his skills as an effective leader and became more active in the growing movement to honor the contributions and legacy of African Americans within the Episcopal Church. Williams was one of several prominent African American church leaders who were present at the organization of the Union of Black Clergy and Laity of the Episcopal Church (UBCL), the forerunner to the Union of Black Episcopalians. Williams would go on to serve as president of the UBCL from 1969 to 1971. He also served the Diocese of Michigan in several leadership positions including representation on the Standing Commission and as a deputy to the 1970 General Convention.
Williams was selected in 1972 to participate in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellows Program through the Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York. The King Fellows Program grew out of student protests calling for a program in Black Church Studies following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The following year, as the professor appointed to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Professorship in Black Church Studies, Dr. Henry H. Mitchell quickly undertook an expansive research project on black church practice. Williams was one of twenty King Fellows selected for the program, which included African American ministers and scholars representing many denominational perspectives. The Fellows program included intensive research trips on the African Diaspora that allowed Williams to travel to West Africa and the Caribbean. Williams completed his doctoral thesis entitled, “The Black Church and the Politics of Futurism” and received his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1975.
In 1973 Williams became the Vicar for the Church of the Intercession. Originally established in the nineteenth century and later a Chapel of Trinity Church in New York City, the Church of the Intercession was a prominent part of religious and cultural life in Harlem. Williams became its first African American rector in 1976, the same year that the congregation became an independent parish of the Diocese of New York. His rectorship continued until his retirement as Pastor Emeritus in 2005.
Williams was a noted scholar of the African Diaspora and a prominent advocate within the Church for many liberation and justice movements in Africa. In recognition of his advocacy for Africa, he was made an honorary canon of Holy Cross Cathedral, Gaborone, Botswana in 1979. Williams remained a close friend and advisor to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Drawing upon his dedication and work in the anti-apartheid and civil rights movements, Williams founded the International Afro-Anglican Conference and served as its treasurer for the 1985 meeting.
While in Harlem, Williams responded directly to many of the problems and changing needs of the community over the course of his long ministry. He founded and served as Chairman of the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, Inc., an interfaith, ecumenical association of over 90 congregations. This organization completed the largest redevelopment project in the history of New York City when it successfully developed or rehabilitated over 2,000 housing units and commercial spaces in Harlem. He served for 10 years as Chair of the National Clergy Advisory Committee of the Harlem Week of Prayer, also known as the Balm of Gilead, Inc.
As a prominent proponent for civil rights and the religious inclusion of gays and lesbians, Williams initiated one of the first ministries to address the HIV-AIDS epidemic. In 1985 he invited fifty African American ministers to a conference on AIDS while rector at the Church of the Intercession. While only 15 ministers attended this first conference, this was a crucial beginning to break a taboo subject in the African American community. Williams continued to advocate for a greater response to the AIDS crisis among the African American religious community and served as a member of the New York City Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.
Williams also expanded his ministry to serve a variety of community and arts organizations. He was selected as a Trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and was a member of the Board of Advisors of the New York City Landmarks Conservancy. Described as a true “Patron of the Arts,” Williams was active supporter of many major African American performing arts groups in New York City. He was also instrumental in providing the first home for the Harlem Boys Choir at the Church of the Intercession. In recognition of his generous service, Queen Elizabeth II named Canon Williams to the Most Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Frederick Boyd Williams died at his home in New York City on April 4, 2006. He was 66 years old. [Sources]