Breaking Barriers, Giving Back

Rollin Williams grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during a time of racial turmoil in the city. Despite this, it remains a place of happy memories for him, where the bright, ambitious boy became a violin soloist in his high school orchestra, valedictorian of his senior class and the Oklahoma state typewriting champion.

Rollin Williams
Rollin Williams

He left Tulsa for Howard University in Washington, D.C., then served in the Army during World War II, using his typewriting skills to move up to personnel sergeant major. He eventually earned his master’s degree in Social Work from Boston University. UConn discovered him while he was employed as an assistant chief social worker at Norwich Hospital in Norwich, Conn. And in 1957, he was hired as a full-time assistant professor in the School of Social Work, becoming the first African-American professor to work at UConn.

“After I arrived at UConn, I received requests from five different schools of social work because they wanted black professors,” he says. “Affirmative action laws had been passed. But I said no, I wouldn’t take those jobs, because UConn took me when it didn’t have to.”

He spent many happy years at the University, as a professor, running admissions for a while, and as an interim dean. In appreciation, he has bequeathed a significant portion of his estate to UConn. A warm and engaging man whose storytelling abilities rival his affability, he keeps in touch with many of his former students, and treasures his memories of UConn. He also continues to embrace his love of music, founding the Connecticut Early Music Society, and collecting 208 complete operas on compact disc.

“Everything that happened to me was serendipity – being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “And I always had a feeling of gratitude toward UConn. UConn has been better to me than anybody else.”

From the UConn Foundation’s e-newsletter, Our Moment (February 2012)