Robert L. Williams II, 1930-2020

Tributes paid to ‘one of the architects of the black psychology movement’

October 1, 2020
Robert L. Williams II, 1930-2020

A scholar who celebrated black slang and uncovered racial bias in intelligence testing and mental health provision has died.

Robert L. Williams II was born in Biscoe, Arkansas in 1930, went to school in Little Rock and then to Dunbar Community College before gaining a bachelor’s degree at Philander Smith College (1953). He followed this with a master’s in psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit (1955) and secured a job as a staff psychologist at Arkansas State Hospital – the first African American to hold such a position in the entire state.

In 1957, Professor Williams returned to higher education for a doctorate in clinical psychology at Washington University in St Louis (1961). He worked as assistant chief psychologist at the Jefferson Barracks Veterans Affairs Hospital in St Louis, director of a hospital improvement project and as a consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health. He was also a founder of the Association of Black Psychologists, serving as president from 1969 to 1970.

In the same year, in response to protests from the institution’s Association of Black Students, Professor Williams returned to Washington University to help set up a black studies programme. He would remain there for the rest of his career, eventually retiring as professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences and of African and African American studies.

While at Washington University, Professor Williams created an independent Institute for Black Studies, where he carried out much of his highly influential research. He raised questions about whether therapeutic interventions designed by and for whites were also suitable for black people. He designed a Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity – whose acronym Bitch helped it attract widespread national attention in 1972 – to demonstrate the racial and cultural bias implicit in most standardised tests. Yet he was perhaps most famous for developing the concept of “Ebonics” – or “ebony phonics” – to describe and celebrate the specific vernacular of African Americans long before it was showcased far more widely in hip hop.

Gerald Early, professor of English and of African and African American studies at Washington University, described Professor Williams as “one of the architects of the black psychology movement” who “brought much attention to black language-making”. Yet he was also a “larger than life” personality who was “very Afrocentrist” and had “a very fatherly approach” to his students, often inviting them round to his house for “events starting with libations and invocations of the ancestors”.

Professor Williams died on 12 August and is survived by seven children, 19 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

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