Thanks to Dr. Sybil Hampton for news of the passing of another one of the many illustrious graduates of Dunbar High School, the premier school for African-Americans in Arkansas during the days of legal segregation.
Robert L. Williams II, professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences and of African and African American studies, both in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis, died Aug. 12, 2020. He was 90.
A founding member and early president of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi), Williams co-founded (with Jack Kirkland) Washington University’s Black Studies program, now the Department of African and African-American Studies. An early critic of racial bias in standardized testing and a proponent of African philosophical traditions, he is perhaps best known for coining the term “Ebonics,” a mash-up of “ebony” and “phonics,” to refer to the vernacular English often spoken by African Americans.
Born in Biscoe, Ark., Williams attended Dunbar High School in Little Rock. As a junior, he took an aptitude test that seemed to suggest a career in manual labor, rather than college work. “I lost my confidence for a long time,” he told The Record in 1981, “until other people convinced me that I could make it in college.”
Despite the test, Williams graduated from Dunbar High at age 16. He spent a year at Dunbar Community College before transferring to nearby Philander Smith College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1953.
There’s much more on his studies and career, including his creation of the black studies program at Washington University as an outgrowth of Civil Rights-era protests.
His pioneering work rings still-relevant today.
In 1972, he developed the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, which made national headlines for demonstrating the cultural biases inherent in standardized testing.
“My prediction was that African Americans would do much better on the Black intelligence test than they would on conventional tests, and white students would do very poorly,” Williams told Early, dryly adding: “That was supported.”
Williams’ conception of Ebonics grew out of a national conference on “The Cognitive and Language Development of Black Children,” which he organized in St. Louis in 1973. Two years later, he edited and published the influential collection “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks.” Other major works include “The Collective Black Mind: Toward an Afrocentric Theory of Black Personality” (1980), “Racism Learned at an Early Age through Racial Scripting” (2007), a history of the ABPsi (2008) and dozens of scholarly papers. In 2014, Washington University honored his legacy with daylong conference on diversity in academia. In 2017, he received a Legacy Award at the university’s Trailblazers recognition ceremony.