Mary D. Williams
“It’s never too late to put your future in your own hands”
Mary D. Williams has spent her life as a performer. As a singer, Mary’s life consists of touring the country as one of the country’s leading African American vocalists blending gospels, spirituals, and hymns.
One afternoon, she was performing for a conference. Mary saw this as a performance that was similar to dozens of others. Little did she know how much this performance would change her life. Her voice caught the attention of Timothy Tyson—an author, historian, and joint professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University who specializes in Southern culture, religion, and race.
Shortly after the performance, Mary and Tim began talking about how they could blend their two backgrounds. They came up with the idea for a community-based course titled “The South in Black and White: Southern History and Culture Along the Color Line.” With the formation of their new class, Mary became an Adjunct Professor at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. Open to UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, Durham Tech, NC Central University students and the surrounding community, Mary and Tim’s first classes were seven years ago and enrolled almost 350 people. Since then, the course has grown in popularity and scope.
“I start each class with music,” Mary says. “It energizes the students and helps them get into the right frame of mind for the history portion of the class, taught by Tim.” Over the course of a semester, Mary teaches the students over 50 African-American traditionals from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement.
As time went on, Mary realized that getting her degree was a way to improve her teaching. “I felt that in order to gain more of a knowledge of American history and Southern culture,” Mary says, “I needed to make it my goal to achieve getting a degree in American Studies.”
Some of her earliest students were UNC-Chapel Hill professors who saw her talents and teaching potential. “They were a big influence for me to go back to school,” Mary says. “They continue to call on me and encourage me in my studies.”
Mary was pointed to Carolina Courses Online and Part-time Classroom Studies at the Friday Center as a way to take courses while working as an adjunct professor and full-time social worker. “I’m very grateful to be a student at my age,” Mary says. “I have a different perspective and that helps me a lot in my studies.”
Mary graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in Spring 2016 with a major in American Studies and minors in African-American Diaspora and History. “It’s never too late to put your future in your own hands,” Mary says.
With her new degree, Mary looks forward to new opportunities, potentially pursuing full-time teaching. “This degree makes me more valuable and a higher commodity,” Mary says. “I’ll be fully equipped to teach African American Diaspora and History in schools.” With a smile she adds, “and maybe I’ll teach a few of them how to sing, too.”