200 Days in the Life of the College

Saturday, February 5

Bearing a torch, he writes of democracy transformed

By Courtney Flint ’11

History professor Chad Williams began his academic career at UCLA, which he describes as “a defining experience in terms of intellectual, political and cultural consciousness.” There it was that his interactions with one African American professor in particular — a scholar of African American history and culture — enabled Williams to recognize his own passion for the field. At a Ph.D. program at Princeton, Williams felt pulled to the study of black soldiers in World War I after reading The Unknown Soldiers, one of the only books published on the subject — until his own.

Williams began the arduous task of turning his dissertation into a book after joining Hamilton’s faculty in 2004. While reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ papers, Williams came across a letter to Du Bois about an African American officer, which described him as “a torchbearer to make the world safe for democracy.” This appropriation of Woodrow Wilson’s famous term became the title and organizing principle of Williams’ recently published book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. An account of how black soldiers used the war to stake a claim to citizenship and expand the definition of democracy, Torchbearers of Democracy received the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award from the Organization of American Historians and the Distinguished Book Award for United States History from the Society for Military History.

Williams and his wife, Madeline López, the former consulting director of Hamilton’s cultural education center, have received a grant from the College to create a program that showcases faculty from different backgrounds who can share their experiences with students — particularly students of color. “Faculty can feel difficult to relate to,” he says, and he believes the program will allow Hamilton students to see some of themselves in their professors — as Williams once did.