Alma Stone Williams, educator, English and music scholar, and pioneer in college racial integration, passed away on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at her home in Savannah, Ga., after a brief illness.
Born in Athens, Ga., in 1921 and raised in Savannah, Mrs. Williams was the first child of Percy H. Stone Sr. and Estelle Price. The family grew to include two brothers, Percy Jr. and Herbert, and after the sudden death of their mother in 1930 and their father’s marriage to Harriet Peeler Stone, the family expanded further to include two half-sisters, Marilyn and Constance, and a half-brother, Nathan.
Alma Stone Williams enrolled at Spelman College at age 15 after achieving the second highest score in the state on the college entrance exams. She majored in English and music, and graduated from Spelman at age 19, valedictorian of her class. She immediately entered a master’s program in English at Atlanta University. Two years later with this first graduate degree in hand, she began a long teaching career, with a position at the historic Penn School on St. Helena Island. She was recruited from there by the legendary educator Horace Mann Bond to teach at Fort Valley State College, where he was then president. Bond was subsequently a major advocate for her to be selected — in a pioneering experiment in racial integration — to be the first black student at Black Mountain College, the famous incubator of artistic talent located in the hills of North Carolina. She left a lasting impression, and after her study there in the summer of 1944, black students and black teachers were warmly accepted for the rest of the school’s history. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has recognized her as being the first known black student to integrate a white college in the South. (Most integration of Southern colleges and universities did not occur until 20 years later, in the 1960s.)
In 1945, she was accepted at Juilliard School of Music and also won a coveted Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship to support her tuition. After one year of piano study at Juilliard, running out of funds for living expenses, she returned to the faculty at Fort Valley intending to save money for an additional year at Juilliard. However, her plans changed after she met an interesting new faculty member, and she ultimately decided to choose love and marriage over a potential career as a concert pianist.
Over the next 12 years, she and her husband, Russell Sr., had five children and established their home in Orangeburg, where they both taught at South Carolina State. He died unexpectedly in 1961, shortly after the birth of their last child, and she took up the task of raising her children while teaching English, music, or both, at S.C. State University, Savannah State University, and in private music lessons. While doing this, she completed a second master’s degree through summer courses at the University of Maryland, this time in Musicology. Her master’s thesis, on Brahms, was so strong that her thesis advisor pronounced it as the “best Ph.D. thesis” he had ever read.
Alma Stone Williams finished her career with two decades as a highly respected professor of English and Humanities at Savannah State. She was known not only for her intellectual prowess, but also for her warm regard for her students, and their affection for her. After her retirement, she remained active in many endeavors involving family, church and community. She was particularly devoted to SONATA (Sponsors of New and Talented Artists), an organization she co-founded that provides funds for children in Savannah to study music with former members of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra and other top music professionals. Several SONATA alumni are now highly respected professional musicians.
Her love of learning was passed on to her children, all of whom hold one or more advanced degrees in their fields, and three of whom became college teachers. She is survived by four of those children, Estelle Crenshaw, Russell Jr., Kenneth and Percy (her son, Julian, a professor at Claflin University, died in 2011), her sisters Marilyn and Constance, her brother Nathan, five grandchildren, and numerous nieces, nephews, and other family.
She is featured in “Fully Awake,” a documentary about Black Mountain College. Currently, there are two other films in process that feature parts of her life. The first, a documentary specifically about her, is being produced by Georgia Public Broadcasting. The second film is currently being written by an independent filmmaker.
Services will be held at noon on Monday, Nov. 11. at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, 622 E. 37th St., Savannah.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Adams Funeral Services, 510 Stephenson Ave., Savannah.
Condolences can be sent to the Williams Family at 2214 Bartlett Drive, Savannah, GA, and/or posted online at the website set up by Adams Funeral Services.
In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations in her memory to Spelman College in Atlanta and/or to Sponsors of New and Talented Artists (SONATA), P.O. Box 22384, Savannah, GA 31403.