Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet

Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison
University of Illinois Press, 1998

The Life Work of William S. Willis Jr.

Peggy Reeves Sanday

We must…view anthropology from the perspectives of colored
peoples, from Richard Wright’s ‘frog perspectives’ of
looking upward from below. When we do this, the importance
of color erupts, and the world of E.B. Tylor, Franz Boas,
and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown becomes articulated with the world
of W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Frantz Fanon. The
‘frog perspectives’ reveal surprising insights about
anthropology, and these insights are the skeletons in the
anthropological closet.

—William S. Willis, Jr (l972:121)

William S. Willis Jr. was passionately committed to anthropology as the academic discipline that could help bring “the end of poverty and powerlessness among colored peoples” through studying the exploitation of these peoples for “the prosperity of white societies” (l972:149;125.) Much of his scholarship served as a model for the anthropology he envisioned. Willis provided particularistic descriptions of the historical trends and socio-political processes that kept the dominated peoples of the part of the world he chose to study, the American southern colonial frontier, from achieving freedom and equality. In the process he contributed significantly to our understanding of the dynamics of inter-cultural contact, exchange, domination and subjugation in multicultural contexts.

In this Chapter I look at the life experiences and research interests that led Willis to conclude that anthropology was not what it claimed to be. It was not “the science of culture,” he suggested, but the social science that studied “dominated colored peoples–and their ancestors–living outside the boundaries of modern white societies” (l972:123). Willis exposed and analysed what he saw as the two faces of anthropology: racism and antiracism. As a person and a professional he was caught in the struggle between the two. He recognized that although the racist part was never openly expressed, it was always there, hidden behind the “apolitical masks” of nearly a century of anthropological scholarship that ignored colonial domination abroad and racism at home–the “skeletons in the anthropological closet.” Willis experienced the racist part of anthropology more personally in the difficulty he had getting an academic job and in his treatment during his short tenure at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Despite the insensitivity and sometimes demeaning attitudes he encountered in his professional life, however, Willis did not give up on anthropology.

This summary of Willis’s critique of anthropology would not be complete without examining Willis’s views of the “scientific antiracism” of Franz Boas and the Boasian school. Willis expressed considerable ambivalence on this topic because of the fact that antiracism was not conceived primarily to defend “colored peoples” but “to attack racial discrimination among white groups, especially Nordicism and anti-Semitism” (l972:138). According to Willis, the fact that “scientific antiracism was concerned only secondarily with colored peoples” explained the detachment of Boasian anthropologists from the civil rights movement (ibid., p. 139). While this angered Willis it did not keep him from recognizing the significant contributions made by Boas in extending the concept of cultural conditioning to blacks as well as to whites.

At the end of his life Willis was engaged in an extensive examination of Boas’s life work, which might have helped him resolved the paradox of Boasian anthropology. It is clear from Willis’s unpublished work and letters on file at the American Philosophical Society that he felt a close kinship with Boas because of the difficulties Boas encountered in attempting to deal with the race issue in America and his research efforts to collect and preserve black folklore. Willis saw parallels between Boas’s experience with anti-semitism and his own experience with racism. Writing to his friend and colleague Morton Fried in l973, Willis concluded that anti-semitism was as “inherent and pervasive in Christian society” as “color prejudice” was in white society. The stereotype of “cowardice of Jews” was as strong as the stereotype of “the shiftless black,” he suggested. Willis expressed admiration for the younger Boas at the turn of the century because he was the “only Jew in anthropology in this country and he was making daring innovations in the world of white Protestant anthropology” (emphasis his, Willis l973 letter to Fried.) I suggest that Willis’s research on Boas became the means by which he vented his frustration with racism and expressed his hope in anthropology as the intellectual discipline that could offer a way out despite the failure of the Boasians to participate in the American civil rights struggle.

Throughout his life, Willis maintained an active correspondence with anthropological colleagues and students. I was among his first students and we stayed in contact throughout his lifetime. I met him in the Spring of l958 at Columbia University. The course was Anthropology 6: Indians of North America. He was the instructor, I was one of 25 undergraduate students. It was a first for both of us. It was his first time teaching at Columbia as a new Ph.D. It was my first semester as an undergraduate major in anthropology. That semester I also took courses from Margaret Mead and Morton Fried. As teachers Mead was famous, Fried was charismatic, Willis was thorough. To a lowly undergraduate female who had just arrived from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Willis was the least daunting and the most personable of the three. All students were important to him, regardless of who they were, especially if they shared his commitment to the field. He was a skilled, hard-working teacher who came to class with piles of notes on lecture cards, which he often read. His perfectionism would have been tedious were it not accompanied by a fascination with anthropological theory and the great respect and interest he showed for students. I was grateful for his concern and encouragement. Willis was the first professor at Columbia who made me feel that there might be a future for me in anthropology. Although we lost touch for many years, we reestablished contact when fate brought us by different paths to Philadelphia in the l970s: He arrived in the years after resigning from SMU; I arrived to start my tenure as an associate professor at the Dept. of Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. We discovered that once again we had in common the experience of being first, he as the first Black hired at SMU, I as the first woman hired by Penn’s anthropology department, one of the oldest in the country. Although we never explicitly discussed the indignities he suffered at SMU or those I encountered at Penn, I realize through researching his life work that we had this in common also. But that’s another story.

Willis was born into an affluent family, in Waco, Texas on July ll, l921, the only son of college educated parents. In Waco, William S. Willis Sr. was a school principal of a Negro highschool . In protest against the subservience expected of him by the Waco school board, he resigned his principalship and organized a construction company that built houses for poor Blacks. Willis Sr. later became Grand Chancellor of the “Colored Knights of Pythians” of Texas, a Negro fraternal organization. Partly in response to an ultimatum from the Waco Ku Klux Klan, Willis Sr. moved his family to Dallas in l923 into a stately Federal-style home he had built in the early l920s.

Willis’s uncle, his mother’s sister’s husband, was also a wealthy business man with a sense of community responsibility. He was one of the founders of the “Negro Progressive Voters League of Dallas,” and used his own money to help register Negro votes and transport Negro voters to the polls. Willis went to a segregated elementary school and then to a segregated high school, Booker T. Washington in Dallas. The Willis family entertained their friends in the Negro community, travelled, and spent every summer in Chicago where they owned another home. As the Grand Chancellor of a Negro fraternal organization, Willis Sr. was an active participant in the Texas Negro community. His business brought him into frequent, friendly contacts with the white business community of Dallas. It was a unique relationship which few members of the Negro community were able to establish given the restrictions imposed by segregation. Tragically for his son, Willis Sr. died suddenly when Willis was eight years old. Years later, he reflected on the emotional trauma of his father’s death in a letter to a student who had just experienced a death in the family. In this letter he observed that sudden death had taken many members of his own family. Sudden death also claimed Willis. He died of a heart attack in August of l983 at the age of 62.

After his father’s death, Willis accompanied his mother on a round-the-world trip. Willis mentioned this trip a few days before he died in his last conversation with his long-time friend and classmate, Morton Fried. Fried felt that the trip had enormous significance for Willis and may have been responsible for his turning to anthropology.

After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School Willis attended Howard University graduating from there in l942, cum laude. History was his major and while at Howard Willis became very close to the historian, Rayford Logan. Willis also studied under Sterling Brown, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke and Charles Wesley. Through studying history, Willis was able to continue his longstanding fascination with “Negro” history and culture, which had been nurtured by the many books in his family’s home library. At Howard, this interest intensified and would remain a lifelong preoccupation.

In l942 World War II had already engulfed the United States and Willis volunteered for service in the U.S. Coast Guard. After shore patrol duty in Boston and combat duty in the North Atlantic, he was honorably discharged in l944. It was a confusing time and Willis was torn between a number of options for pursuing further study. His Howard mentor, Rayford Logan, suggested that he try Harvard Law School. Willis, however, was more interested in social science and Negro history and culture.

In l945 Willis began graduate study at Columbia University, first in political science and then in anthropology. In two applications submitted to the Guggenheim Foundation in the l970s, Willis explained in the “Career Account” section of the application what led him into anthropology. In the first account, he wrote that he “was led into anthropology by the appeal of the scientific antiracism of the Boasian tradition.” In the second account he wrote as follows:

In l945, I began graduate study at Columbia University, first in political science and then in anthropology. I shifted to anthropology because I assumed that this discipline was the vanguard in the attack against racist thought. I tried to reconcile the concentration on North American Indians that then prevailed in anthropology with my strong interests in history and in the study of Black people by selecting Black-Indian relations in Southeastern North America as the problem for my dissertation.

Despite the enormous influence of Boas and the Boasian tradition of cultural as opposed to biological determinism in American anthropology, Willis encountered discrimination immediately upon entering the field as a graduate student. When he went to register in the Department of Anthropology, which for many years had been Boas’s academic home, a well known professor advised him not to pursue graduate work because there would be no place for him in the field. Nevertheless, he persisted and received a Ph.D. at Columbia in l955. His classmates comprised a very distinguished list: Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, Morton Fried, Robert Murphy, Elliott P. Skinner, and Marvin Harris.

Willis was not able to develop his interest in scientific antiracism and Negro culture and history during his graduate years at Columbia. The Boasian tradition was no longer prevalent in the Department and the study of North American Indians dominated American anthropology, despite Boas’s efforts to turn attention to North American Blacks. The closest Willis could get to studying dominated colored peoples in America was to examine Indian-Negro relations in southeastern North America. He selected this problem for his dissertation but soon discovered that it could not be handled adequately without first gaining satisfactory knowledge of socio-cultural change among l8th century Indians in this region. Therefore, his dissertation became a study of economic, military, and political patterns among the Cherokee. Research for the dissertation was partly financed by a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship awarded him in l949. In the same year he married Georgine E. Upshur of Philadelphia who was studying for a M.S. degree at the New York School of Social Work.

Willis’s dissertation was entitled Colonial Conflict and the Cherokee Indians, 1710-1760. The dissertation dealt with the impact of the Anglo-Spanish-French trade and political rivalry on Cherokee society and culture, documenting the sociocultural change, assimilation and adaptation of an Indian people in the colonial setting. The research made him into an ethnohistorian and convinced him of the importance of the historical approach in anthropology.

After receiving the Ph.D. in June of l955, Willis applied immediately to the Ford Foundation for a Training Fellowship in West African culture and history. At Columbia he had been able to take only one survey course on Africa offered by Professor Gene Weltfish. His plan was to spend an academic year beginning in Sept of l956 studying Africa at some university before going to West Africa for field work. He wrote to Melville Herskovits in November of l955 asking for sponsorship at Northwestern. Herskovits responded by return mail welcoming him to Northwestern and promising to do whatever was necessary to help Willis receive training in the African field.

In his proposal to Ford, Willis stressed his ethnohistorical background and his desire to focus his project on the “study of the processes of cultural change through time,” noting that concern with historical depth had been ignored by the structural- functional approach of British anthropology. He wrote that he would be “especially concerned with the ethnohistory of the emergent African political systems, particularly with those in British West Africa.” Specifically, he wanted to focus on the Gold Coast and Nigeria. He described his long standing scientific interest in things Negro and African, dating from his social science studies as an undergraduate major in History at Howard. He said that his maturation as a scholar would be facilitated by an intense concentration upon an area as different in its history and ethnography as Africa compared with his dissertation focus on the Indians of the Southeast. Another reason he gave for his interest in Africa concerned the recent political developments in West Africa, which he said were “especially important and immensely fascinating.” Such a concern with nationalist politics and change over time was quite unusual in African studies at the time.

Also unusual at the time (this was the l950s) was his emphasis on the importance of studying African women. In the application, he wrote that his wife would accompany him throughout the program of study. He explained that she would “be able to form contacts with African women” which would not be available to him in the field. Accordingly he included her “academic qualifications” in the application. These were “an A.B. degree from the University of Pennsylvania where she was a major in Sociology and a M.S. degree from the New York School of Social Work.” “Moreover,” he concluded, “she has had six years’ experience as a social worker.”

Unfortunately, Ford turned him down. One can speculate that his proposal was perceived as too political and naive given the academic politics of the time. Including his wife in his plans for field methodology came at a time when women were virtually ignored in anthropological field methodology. In the l980s and 90s such a plan would be routine. Looking at nationalist politics and history for understanding contemporary social form was also politically incorrect in the l950s, especially in light of the burgeoning local African political movements for independence from colonial rule.

Denied the chance to engage in ethnography abroad and the study of Negro culture and history at home, Willis turned back to the ethnohistory of southeastern Indian relations. In l957 he wrote a letter to William N. Fenton at the State Museum in Albany, then the premiere ethnohistorian of Northeastern Indians. Willis was careful not to mention his interest in Indian-Negro relations in this letter. Compared to his Ford proposal, he seemed very conservative when he wrote “my belief is very strong that one of the most important needs in American anthropology is for more historical research in the documentary materials pertaining to the American Indians” (Willis l957 letter to Fenton.)

Willis asked Fenton’s advice concerning possibilities for obtaining employment or grants that could help him to continue his research. Fenton’s response must have been devastating to the young scholar. Agreeing that anthropology needed more historical research, Fenton stated that he knew of “no way” in which a young man of Willis’s talents and training could “find gainful employment at it.” Several months later after reading Willis’ first published article “The Nation of Bread,” Fenton wrote a congratulatory letter calling it “a sharp piece of writing” (Fenton l957 letters to Willis.)

From l955 to l964 Willis was only able to get part-time teaching at Columbia and City College of New York. He felt that the difficulty was due to the fact that employment opportunities for black scholars in white schools were minimal as were the opportunities for anthropologists in black schools. During this time he pursued his research interest in early colonial Southeastern North America publishing two articles on Indian culture patterns and Black-Indian-White relations.

The articles focused on ethnohistorical issues and were published in the journal Ethnohistory. Like his dissertation these articles established his significant abilities as an ethnohistorian. Both articles corrected the record regarding certain issues Willis felt had been misreported by ethnologists. His approach was innovative. In addition to examining the standard historical treatises, he looked for “ethnographic facts found now and then in routine documents written by busy officials and semi-literate traders” and compared these facts with the extended descriptions of more sophisticated authors (Willis 1957:125). The scholarship was enlivened by the personal interest Willis took in the five groups he studied: Cherokee, Choctaw, Chicasaw, Creeks and Seminoles. He often talked informally about these groups mentioning the names of Chiefs and Braves and discussing the relationships between slaves, former slaves and the Indians as if he lived among them. The result was a fascinating look at the cultural complexity and diversity of early southeastern colonial life, which often belied the neat anthropological analyses fitting Indian culture into preconceived theoretical categories devised by anthropologists for comparative analyses of social organization.

In “Patrilineal Institutions in Southeastern North America” Willis documented numerous examples of patrilineal practices in this supposedly matrilineal area, using l8th century sources that had been largely ignored. He suggested the interesting hypothesis that the matrilineal institutions, which existed side- by-side the patrilineal, may have seemed prominent to later observers “because native patrilineal institutions were swamped and obscured by newer patrilineal institutions that developed as a result of White contact.” He suggested that because patrilineal institutions may have been less formalized than the matrilineal clan system, they would have been more difficult to see (Willis l963b:260-61.)

This article and Willis’ first article, “The Nation of Bread” (l957), combined the historical method with Boasian particularism. Explaining his research approach in a letter to Charles H. Fairbanks, who was then head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida, Willis characterized the complexity of 18th century southeastern Indian culture, emphasizing the “great deal of cultural variation” that often included “outright contradictions.” The well known confederacies of the Creeks, Cherokee, and Choctaw, which some anthropologists treated as homogeneous cultural units, he saw as “confederacies of different cultural units.” Each of the tribal towns of the “Creek Nation,” he suggested, had a different culture, which meant that the tribal unit of significance was not the nation but the town (Willis letter to Fairbanks l963a).

While working on these early papers, Willis did not turn away from his interest in Negro culture and history. In l957, he wrote to his trusted Howard mentor, Rayford Logan, saying that he wanted to shift his research toward “problems dealing with the Negro.” His first paper on this subject examined the relationship among Blacks, Indians, and White European groups on the southeastern colonial frontier. Entitled “Divide and Rule: Red, White, and Black in the Southeast,” the paper was published in the Journal of Negro History in l963 and was reprinted four times thereafter.

It was a masterpiece of particularistic analysis of l8th century multiculturalism in the midst of intense political struggle. As he stated in this paper, “(t)he Colonial southeast was an arena of an unremitting struggle for empire among Whites: English, French, Spanish, and later Americans” (Willis l963a:159.) Whites competed for the allegiance of Indian tribes and sought to drive a wedge between Indians and Negroes, as well as among Indian tribes, by employing strategies of divide and rule.

This paper demonstrated that Willis had come of age as a scholar. In a letter of recommendation written the next year, l964, Morton Fried, recognized Willis as “one of the country’s authorities on the Colonial period in the Southeastern United States.” Fried expressed the belief that Willis had “an unusually acute grasp of the historical problems (of this area) in terms of the triangle constituted by Indians, Negroes and the European settlers.” “Any thorough study of the race problem in any culture,” he concluded “requires some use of Willis’ contribution” (Fried l964 letter).

In l964, still without a job and despairing of every getting one in the Northeast, Willis and his wife moved into his family home in Dallas. His mother had lived in the big house alone, until her death of a heart attack at the age of 76 in June of l963. Willis wrote in a letter to Dorothy Libby that it was a “very sudden and unexpected tragedy.” He had remained close to his mother, visiting 3 or 4 times a year to check on her. She died a few days after he arrived for one of these visits on June l8th (Willis letter to Libby, l963b).

The year after he moved to Dallas, Willis became the first black faculty member to integrate Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Looking to head off trouble rising from civil rights struggles all over the country, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Southern Methodist offered Willis a joint appointment as assistant professor. It would seem, however, that SMU was not ready for full time integration of a black faculty member. The joint appointment required him to spend two-thirds of his time at SMU, a White upper middle class school located at one end of the city of Dallas, and the other third of his time at Bishop College, a black Baptist school with a lower income student body, located at the other end, miles apart. The job was exhausting, involving a great deal of travel time between the schools to meet class schedules, faculty meetings, conferences, etc. Often there was conflict in the class schedules.

Willis spent only one year in the joint appointment–the academic year of l965-66. Fearing that the arrangement would become stabilized, precluding a full-time appointment at SMU, he gave up the Bishop position and taught part-time as an assistant professor at SMU in l966-67, sustaining a temporary loss of income. He became a full-time assistant professor in the Fall of l967 and was promoted to associate professor in May of l968 with tenure.

The years at SMU were bitter-sweet, in the end more bitter than sweet. Willis and his wife made life-long friends during his tenure at SMU. Edward B. Jelks, for example, was an archeologist who came to SMU with his wife the same year that Willis joined the SMU faculty. The two couples struck up a lasting friendship which Gene Willis continued in the years after Willis died. In l988 Jelks dedicated the book, The Historical Dictionary of North American Archaeology, on which his wife worked as assistant editor, “to the memory of William S. Willis, Jr.” In the Preface of the book he wrote, “[a] very special acknowledgment is due my friend and colleague, the late Dr. William S. Willis, Jr. whose encouragement led to my undertaking this project in the first place.” Jelks left SMU in l968 to go to Illinois State University.

After his first year at SMU, Willis seemed exhausted when he wrote to Fried commenting that he and his wife had “made it.” However, he hastened to add that he and his wife could not have asked for a more “cordial and warm reception” at SMU and in Dallas. They were readily accepted by the SMU social community and Willis was elected to several Boards in Dallas (Willis l966 letter to Fried). The following year, Willis interpreted their social acceptance as evidence that he and his wife’s “efforts to integrate had been successful to a large extent” (Willis l967a letter to Fried.)

The exhilaration he felt in surmounting the many challenges continued. In the Fall of l967, he summed up his feelings in a letter to Fried.

…this experience has probably been the most exciting, most significant, and most revealing one in our lives. There are so many aspects about us, about Negroes, and Whites that we did not dream of until we went through this ordeal. We feel we are the richer for it. We only wish that it had come much earlier in our lives, but then America was not ready and we were probably not ready (Willis l967b letter to Fried.)

The first signs of trouble came in the Fall of l967 when Willis found that, due to his popularity as a teacher, he was carrying almost half of the students in a nine-faculty member department and was the only faculty member faced with three separate preparations. He felt he was the “workhorse of the department” who received the least pay (Willis l967c letter to Skinner.) It seemed that although he had managed to achieve his primary goal of full-time status and integration at SMU, the costs to his peace of mind were severe.

Thereafter, his letters express growing frustration and desperation. Willis felt isolated and helpless at SMU and in the Dallas community. At SMU the problem was “white lethargy” and in Dallas it was “black hostility.” To the Negro community, he wrote in a letter to Elliott P. Skinner, “I am a criticism, a threat, a challenge, and an overt desertion.” SMU, on the other hand, had in him “[i]ts integration too easily and too cheaply.” He felt that he would have to apply new pressure to be treated equally. He thought he would have to “de-emphasize teaching and general behavioral acceptability” in order to “reduce anxiety and exhaustion.” Other solutions were to publish, invite outside offers, “become more difficult,” and “be prepared to resign” (Willis l967d letter to Skinner; Willis l968a letter to Fried.)

Skinner responded by commenting on the inter-personal dynamics facing one who crosses the line separating the races. The Negro community Willis left behind would prevent him from “playing the role of precursor,” Skinner suggested. On the other hand, the “danger at SMU,” he wrote, was that Willis would be made welcome “but like a virus intruder judged ultimately as subversive of the system” and, thus, he would be “surrounded and consumed by leucocyte.” Commenting on the solutions Willis had proposed, Skinner, who knew Willis well as a close friend, doubted very much that he could de-emphasize his teaching because he was always eager to do his best. “I cannot see you behaving badly,” Skinner said. “You are too much of a gentleman for that.” Publishing and inviting outside offers were better solutions, Skinner advised, along with playing politics. According to Skinner, the political was the key to most things in American society if one had the cynicism necessary to play the game (Skinner l967 letter to Willis.)

Willis followed Skinner’s advice. He asked for more equal treatment, including an office. For unknown reasons, Willis was not given an office in the anthropology department. The first office assigned to him was one vacated by someone on leave in January of l968. Before that he had to make due with an office in the sociology department (anthropology and sociology split into separate departments the year after Willis joined the faculty.) Willis continued to be the lowest paid faculty member, carrying the most new courses. The situation changed somewhat when he was promoted to associate professor with tenure in the spring of l968 and was granted a leave of absence for the fall semester.

His growing militancy was evident when he was invited during this leave to give a major lecture at the University of Texas at Austin. The lecture was part of a series of public lectures devoted to the “Negro’s role in American history.” Willis was one of ten outstanding students of “the black past” who participated in the series. He spoke on the subject of “Anthropology and Negroes on the Southern Colonial Frontier” to an enthusiastic audience of 500. He felt that the lecture established good rapport with the Negro students without antagonizing the white students.

In the talk, Willis departed from mainstream anthropology by stressing the importance of studying “Negroes” in the United States and by opposing the almost exclusive emphasis on Indians. He suggested that the reason for the neglect of Negroes was related to the fact that modern Western anthropology had evolved as the study of colonialized peoples and others outside the boundaries of Western civilization. Indians fit the conventional subject matter of anthropology better than Negroes because the reservation was the functional equivalent of the colony of imperialism. Furthermore, he pointed out, it was impossible to find funding from the federal government or Northern philanthropy because neither was willing “to risk Southern white anger for the sake of a mere exercise in scholarship” (Willis l970a:37.)

In addition to challenging anthropology’s neglect of Negro culture and history, Willis also attacked the “lily-white composition of anthropology,” pointing out that there were no more than ten Negroes in the country holding Ph.D. degrees in anthropology (Willis l970a:38.) He attributed the scarcity to few employment opportunities for blacks in white institutions and little enthusiasm for anthropology in black institutions. In his opinion, Negro colleges were operated “by and for middle-class mulattos,” who were concerned with assimilating white middle- class culture (l970a:39.) Studying exotic peoples in other countries or on reservations at home was irrelevant for people struggling with prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis, he suggested (ibid.)

This talk demonstrated the direction in which Willis was moving in anthropology. His four years in Texas had radicalized him, he wrote to Skinner at the time he gave the talk (Willis l968b letter to Skinner.) About this time he proposed a new course entitled the “Anthropology of New World Negroes.” Upon his return to SMU in the Spring of l969, he began to take an increasingly vocal position both in the class room and in other forums, presenting a stronger version of his Austin talk to the SMU Anthropology Club entitled “Why U.S. Anthropology has Neglected U.S. Negroes” (Willis l969a letter to Skinner.)

During the spring semester, black students at SMU staged a confrontation with the SMU administration, occupying the President’s office for a few hours. There was no violence and some constructive agreements were reached, including the establishment of an Institute of Afro-American studies. Willis was involved in some of these proceedings, however he did not take a militant position. When approached to serve as a sponsor for setting up a separatist black organization on campus, he expressed the wish to retain a neutral public stance. He saw himself as occupying a middle ground in the increasingly polarized discourse of the time. He did not want to be identified as a “black anthropologist,” because of his commitment to integration and his opposition to any form of racism. Above all, he cherished his identity as an anthropologist (Willis l969b letters to Skinner, Foster, and Mintz.)

As time progressed, the demands at SMU and the problems of negotiating the various black factions in the Dallas community together with a longing to be closer to his anthropological colleagues and the professional debates in New York, led Willis and his wife to begin thinking seriously of leaving Dallas. His salary was extraordinarily low for an associate professor with tenure ($13,500 in l970.) He was continually frustrated and discouraged by petty annoyances and outright insults suffered in the Department. In the Fall of l970, he resigned from the Graduate Faculty in protest when he learned that his colleagues had reduced his one graduate course to an undergraduate level, giving it a new name, in his absence and without consulting him. It was a seminar in the history of anthropology, which he had introduced four years previously. He withdrew his resignation only after receiving a letter of apology from the Department Chair and the Dean.

There were other more serious incidents. One in particular demonstrated the extraordinary insensitivity of the Chairman of the Department of Anthropology, Fred Wendorf. In April of l971, Wendorf distributed copies of a peculiar document to the faculty at a departmental faculty meeting. The document was a year-end “Report of Activities for the Calendar Year l971.” The report contained racist and sexist slurs directed at black students, women, and the Afro-American studies program signed by a fictitious professor named P.O. Stamp. Under the heading “Teaching” there was an account of a course called “Black Stamps.” According to its author, this course

was well received by majors in the program of Afro-American Studies, who were much impressed by my slides of the British one-penny black. Unfortunately, some of my students were misled by these exhibits to conclude that Queen Victoria was a black woman, a misconception which was corrected only after intensive studies of subsequent issues featuring Edward VII and George V.

Under “Awards and Honors,” the author listed a “Honorary D. Ph. (Doctor of Philately) from Balls State University.” Under “Community Service,” he listed himself as “an advisor to the League of Women Bloaters (a society for the promotion of pregnancy).”

Willis was not present when the document was distributed and obtained it later. He was told that at the meeting Wendorf stated that the document came from the Provost. Willis wrote immediately to the Provost, protesting the existence of this document with its “unfortunate racial slurs and off-color vulgarisms,” indicating that he did not believe that it originated in the Provost’s office (Willis l971a letter to McFarland.) The Provost replied that the document did not originate in his office and apologized for the “affront.” However, adding insult to injury the Provost belittled the seriousness of the affair saying it was no more than “one person’s effort at humor” and should be treated as nothing more than “poor taste” (McFarland l971 letter to Willis.)

However, this was not the end of the matter. Soon after, the Chairman placed a large placard on the departmental bulletin board announcing a party at his home with P.O.Stamp as the guest of honor. Willis did not attend the party but learned that the honored guest was no other than the Dean of the Graduate School who had just been promoted to Vice-Provost (Willis l971b letter to Willie.)

About this time, Willis learned that his request for a leave without pay for the year l971-72 had been officially approved by the Board of Trustees as a terminal leave of absence. When he protested to the Provost, he was informed that this was done because the Chairman of the Department and the Dean, heralded at the aforementioned party as P.O.Stamp, had understood that when Willis made the request for the leave he had indicated his intention not to return to the University. The Provost took all of this to be “a misunderstanding,” but didn’t provide much comfort when he assured Willis of “our willingness” to discuss with him his relationship to the University at any time during the period of the leave. Willis finally received clarification of the issue in a letter from the President who apologized for the whole incident and removed the word “terminal” from the record (Willis 1971c letter to Brooks; Brooks and McFarland l971 letter to Willis; Tate l971 letter to Willis.)

A year later, Willis resigned. The letter of resignation, addressed to Willis M. Tate, Chancellor, Southern Methodist University, was dated April 27, l972. The letter read as follows:

Dear Dr. Tate:

When I was invited in l965 to become the first black faculty member at Southern Methodist University, I had some hope that a step toward racial justice was being taken and that such a step might lead to more important changes and greater racial understanding.

In practice, however, quite the contrary has happened. The treatment which I received from Dr. Fred Wendorf, Chairman of the Department of Anthropology, at first surprised and then infuriated me. I have brought specific instances to the attention of the central administration on numerous occasions. It has eventually become sadly obvious to me that the administration is unwilling to demonstrate the courage and vision necessary to deal effectively with the problem and permit me to function with dignity. As a result, my position in the Department of Anthropology under Dr. Wendorf is intolerable.

I resign herewith my tenured appointment as an associate professor, effective immediately. This is a sad ending for what I began so hopefully in 1965, and I fear that it is another victory for what in my opinion is a deplorable attitude. Nevertheless, I can no longer function effectively in my work while having to cope with the treatment accorded me.

Very truly yours,

In a draft of this letter, Willis had added that although he could not prove “that this treatment by Professor Wendorf is due to racial bigotry, the impact on me is the same.”

The resignation came after Willis had suffered further indignities by the Chairman who, in his absence, removed all of his personal effects from Willis’s office in the Department and sent them to an office in another building. Writing about this and other incidents to Sidney Mintz, Willis expressed his incredulity over the way he had been treated, especially in light of the fact that the Department had received a NSF Developmental Grant of $600,000, “the only one given an anthropology department, with the special provision that the new focus of [the] Department would be in urban ethnography, especially minority problems” (Willis l971d letter to Mintz.) Willis felt that his color and brains had been exploited by the Chair to get the grant and then, once the grant was awarded overlooked his contribution. Willis was not even mentioned as a member of the department when news of the grant was published in the Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association.

The same year that Willis resigned his “Skeletons” article appeared in Reinventing Anthropology, the controversial book edited by Dell Hymes. Hymes invited Willis to contribute an article because of his Austin lecture, which was published in The Black Experience, the edited book based on Willis’ University of Texas lecture of l968. Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes l972) was part of Pantheon’s “anti-text” series, texts which took up important problems not covered in the standard text books. Hymes wanted the book to cover a range of questions. For example, what would anthropology be like if reinvented now? What would it be like if reinvented in an age of film? How much of anthropology is the way it is because of the goals of anthropology and how much because it has become an American academic profession? Hymes also included critiques of the limitations of anthropological study of culture change in the context of colonialism (Hymes l970 letter to Willis.)

Originally, Willis thought of entitling his contribution “The Anthropologist as Vulture,” or “The Anthropologist as Exploiter.” He finished the final draft in June of l971 just after the P.O. Stamp incident and the attempt to ease him out of SMU. He admitted that the paper was written “in bitterness and under considerable strain” and that the perspective he developed was due to his six years in Dallas. With his usual honesty, he wondered whether the bitterness and the isolation he had endured at SMU might have introduced in the argument an “element of distortion” (Willis l971e letters to Hymes and Fried.)

In the paper, Willis argues that anthropology’s virtual silence on the domination of colored peoples at home and abroad was inconsistent with its tradition of scientific antiracism. HE points out that although scientific antiracism had been developed as a theory to establish the irrelevancy of race as an explanation of differing sociocultural patterns, it was “not conceived primarily to defend colored peoples” (emphasis his). Instead, it was used to establish “the irrelevancy of racial explanations in regard to white groups” (Willis l972:138-39.) As Boas himself admitted, Willis continued, most scientific antiracism was an “effort to combat the anti-Semitic drift” in the white world (Willis l972:139).

Willis was incensed at the detachment of many Boasians from the civil rights movement. He pointed out that Herskovits, for example, used black populations to confirm antiracist conclusions in the physical anthropology of Boas, yet excluded ending “discrimination against New World blacks as a goal of Afro- American studies” (Willis l972:139.)

Willis concluded that most anthropologists are “at best committed only to gradual socio-cultural change,” thereby postponing the end of imperialism to a distant future. Moreover, the equilibrium model of functionalism so prevalent in British social anthropology could be seen as a defense of the status quo. Such models “locate the causes of change inside artificial boundaries of small communities and not in the worldwide system of capitalist imperialism.” By misplacing causation, he claimed, anthropology both provided an inadequate guide to change and insufficient theories of change. Thus, anthropology was unable to either properly describe or provide “any scientific basis for a program of socio-cultural change” (Willis l972:144-45.)

This was a strong paper, which was virtually ignored or belittled in the reviews. Its indictment of anthropological practice with respect to “colored peoples” has yet to be fully confronted or even recognized. Other concerns he raised are now more accepted in the anthropological discourse. For example, today few anthropologists would neglect the effect of national political and economic processes on local socio-cultural forms.

After moving to Philadelphia, his wife’s home, Willis continued his intensive examination of the Boas papers on file at the American Philosophical Society, which include over 60,000 letters. Because of his untimely death, we don’t know what Willis might have finally concluded from this research. However, there are a few clues. His first piece on Boas was completed in l973, not long after his resignation. Entitled “Franz Boas and the Study of Black Folklore” (Willis l975), this paper describes Boas’ efforts to encourage the collection of black folklore and to train black professionals in the fields of anthropology and folklore. Willis describes how together with Elsie Clews Parsons, a wealthy sociologist turned anthropologist, Boas sought out black students who then received financial backing from Parsons to collect black folklore. Frank Speck introduced them to Arthur Huff Fauset in the twenties who was eventually awarded a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania in l942. Gladys Reichard introduced them to Zora Neale Hurston who studied briefly at Columbia. Both Fauset and Hurston became competent folklorists under the guidance of Boas and Parsons (ibid., 320-21.)

In this paper, Willis suggests that “the main key to Boas as a person and as a scientist” was the conflict he felt between his personal politics and desire to professionalize anthropology as a discipline. According to Willis, Boas’s interest in black folklore “arose from political commitments that shaped his vision of anthropology.” These commitments, Willis suggests, “were more fundamental than the professionalization of anthropology, although professionalism was sometimes strong enough to clash successfully with Boas’s politics.” Even though professionalism might have “acted as a break on Boas’s political activism” until his later years, Willis concludes that this “professionalism was often an apolitical mask for deeper political convictions” (Willis l975:309.)

In an interview taped for a PBS special on Boas in l979, Willis went even further to propose that race was Boas’s fundamental concern in anthropology. According to Willis, Boas’s contribution to the study of race was unique for four reasons: (1) he introduced a new way of looking at race by minimizing the importance of race as a determinant of human behavior; (2) he tried to shift the main focus of anthropological research from the North American Indian to other peoples, especially to black people in the United States; (3) he tried to establish a “black presence” in anthropology by drawing black students into Ph.D. programs; and (4)he tried to establish close cooperation between anthropology as a discipline and black scholars and political leaders interested in studying black people in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

Boasian scholars will undoubtedly take issue with the contention that Boas tried to shift the main focus of anthropological ressearch from North American Indians to other peoples. Unfortunately, Willis died before he was able to finish his documentation of these propositions. We can only speculate as to how his research developed after his comments on Boas for the PBS series. Two clues are provided from Willis’s file at the American Philosophical Society. At the time of his death, Willis was working on a paper entitled “Boas in Atlanta.” This unpublished paper describes Boas’s trip to Atlanta in l906 to deliver the commencement address at Atlanta University, one of the major black colleges in the United States. Willis was surprised that Boas went to Atlanta. Although by 1906 Boas had attained a certain eminence in anthropology, he had powerful enemies in the field who as late as the late l910s and l920s came close to expelling him from the American Anthropological Association. According to Willis:

That Boas would make this visit when there existed this limitation on his predominance in anthropology tells something significant about Boas and what this trip meant to him….he was risking giving his opponents ammunition against him when we take into consideration the state of race relations at that time (Willis ms nd:1-2.)

According to Willis, racial politics at the time pitted Booker T. Washington against W.E.B. DuBois, who invited Boas to Atlanta. Since Booker T. Washington controlled white philanthropy Willis thought that if Boas wanted funds to study Negroes he made “a strategic blunder in accepting the invitation to speak at Atlanta” (ibid., p. 15.) However, if Booker T. Washington was offended at Boas’s acceptance of the invitation there was nothing in the speech delivered by Boas that was inconsistent with Booker T. Washington’s position. Willis characterized Boas’s speech as follows:

He used euphemisms. He did not advocate political agitation. He did not condemn the white man. He urged the student to self help, to work hard, to be patient, to be smiling and cheerful. This was all straight BTW. No it was not what Boas said at Atlanta, but the very fact that he went to Atlanta at the invitation of Dubois. Boas unknowingly was in the enemy camp. Boas soon recognized his blunder. Then began his attempts to mend fences with BTW. [He had] secret meeting with BTW. This might be one reason for the strange coolness that persisted between DuBois and Boas. Boas might have resented that DuBois got him involved in the racial politics [without warning him] (ibid., pp. 15- 16.)

Willis was clearly ambivalent about the talk Boas delivered in Atlanta. On the positive side, Willis appreciated Boas’s emphasis on culture in explaining the position of American Negroes in the United States. According to Willis,

He [Boas] did not think that American Negroes had achieved very much so far in the United States. He did not believe that this lack of achievement should be taken to mean that Negroes were biologically incapable of making a contribution. He used the relatively high level of African cultural development to show what the Negro was capable of achieving when not hindered by whites. Africa was used to indicate Negro capability and to counteract the idea that the Negro was incapable….In addition to praise for Africa, he used this to give the Negroes hope. He urged them to self-help, to have hope, to be patient, to be cheerful (ibid., p. 4.)

Willis was not happy with Boas’s stress on the Protestant work ethic, “gradualism,” and with all that he did not say in this speech. Regarding what Boas did not say, Willis wrote:

In the first place, he soft-pedalled what the white man had done. He did not explicitly refer to the slave trade, slavery, segregation, imperialism, discrimination, exploitation, lynching. Instead, he resorted to euphemism: innocuous gloss of these events. Moreover, Boas did not advocate protest and agitation. He did not advocate immediatism. He did not advocate that Negroes should immediately agitate and protest for their rights. He did not condemn what whites had and were doing to Negroes (ibid., pp. 4-5.)

At the time of his death, Willis may have been trying to resolve his ambivalence about Boas’s contribution to “antiracism.” The day before he died he requested xerox copies of two letters on file at the American Philosophical Society. One was a letter written on May 6, l935 by Prof. William K. Gregory resigning as Chairman of the Galton society in protest against anti-Semitism and the Society’s alignment with Germany. The second letter was written by Raymond Pearl in response to Gregory’s letter of resignation. Dated May 8, Pearl’s response poses the central dilemma which Willis undoubtedly felt confronted Boas, namely how to resolve the clash between professionalism and politics.

Pearl’s resolution of this dilemma was not one with which Willis would have agreed. Although sharing Gregory’s views “about the current political philosophy of Germany,” “in considerable part — indeed probably wholly–“, Pearl questioned the wisdom of Gregory’s resigning. “I have a deep conviction,” he wrote, “that political considerations should never be allowed to play a part in science.” Pearl went on to express the hope that since Gregory’s action was “motivated by political rather than scientific considerations,” he would reconsider his resignation.

Willis understood the professional minefield that characterized the issue of race in pre-civil rights America. Rather than condemning Boas for his “gradualism,” he appreciated his effort to sever the connection between race and biology that characterized American thought. He also understood that in building anthropology as an accepted academic discipline, Boas strengthened the scientific foundation for “antiracism,” which although not conceived with “colored peoples” in mind came to apply to them as much as to Jews and white immigrants.

Whatever the reason, be it his race which ensured his marginality in the field or the civil rights movement which emboldened him, Willis was more direct and outspoken. In his letters, teaching, activism, and publications, he did not hide behind the apolitical masks of scientific professionalism. He was the gentleman scholar who remained true to his beliefs in science, anthropology, and human betterment. Despite the discrimination he experienced, he did not prevaricate or dissemble. He resented all stereotypes and suffered when thoughtless colleagues applied them to him. Although he identified with his race, he was intellectually aligned with the many anthropologists with whom he corresponded on a regular basis. His correspondence with students and colleagues of like mind–George Foster, Morton Fried, Elliott P. Skinner, Sidney Mintz, Marvin Harris, Dell Hymes, Charles Fairbanks, Rayford Logan (and later Arthur Fauset)–demonstrated a fertile, inquiring mind with deep feelings, always loyal, committed to the very end of his life to anthropology, as some are committed to family.

Although Willis did not receive his just reward from the field to which he devoted his life, his many friends in the field will never forget him. I feel confident in saying that all who knew William Willis would be glad to add their voices to the letter Stephen Catlett wrote to Gene Willis on August 9, l983, a few days after his death:

It just will not yet sink into my mind that I will not be seeing your husband’s kind, loving face again…His, and your, generosity and concern over the years, to me and others…has always seemed…to be an almost unique quality that is to be treasured….I will never be able to think of Franz Boas again and not be lovingly reminded of Dr. Willis. It only saddens me more to think that he was not able to publish more from the wealth of information he had amassed in his head and on paper over these many years of research.

Brooks, James E. and H. Neil McFarland. l971. Letter to William S. Willis.

Fenton, William N. l957. Letters to Willis March 5; July 24.

Hymes Dell. l970. Letter to William S. Willis, Oct. 16.
___. 1972. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Random

McFarland, H. Neil. l971. Letter to William S. Willis, May 3.

Fried, Morton. l983. Obituary: William S. Willis, Jr. American
Philosophical Society.
___. l964. Letter To Whom it May Concern, Oct. 7.

Skinner, Elliott P. l967. Letter to William Willis, July 27.

Tate, Willis M. l971. Letter to William S. Willis, June 4.

Willis, William S. Jr.l957 Letter to William Fenton, Feb. 13.
___. nd. Ms, “Boas Goes to Atlanta.”
___. l963a. Letter to Charles H. Fairbanks, Dec. 18.
___. 1963b. Letter to Dorothy Libby, July 17, l963.
___. l966. Letter to Morton Fried, May 17.
___. l967a. Letter to Morton Fried, March 26.
___. l967b. Letter to Morton Fried, Oct. 9.
___. 1967c. Letter to Elliott P. Skinner, Sept. 23.
___. l967d. Letter to Elliott P. Skinner, May 31, l967.
___. l968a. Letter to Morton Fried, March 8.
___. l968b. Letter to Elliott P. Skinner, Nov. 23.
___. l969a. Letter to Elliott P. Skinner, April 12.
___. l969b. Letters to Eilliott P. Skinner, April 12; George
Foster, May 20; Sidney Mintz, May 20.
___. l971a. Letter to Dr. H. Neil McFarland, Provost, April 29.
___. l971b. Letter to Prof. Charles V. Willie, June 27.
___. 1971c. Letter to Dr. James E. Brooks, Associate Provost, May
___. l971d. Letter to Sidney Mintz, Nov. 8.
___. l971e. Letters to Dell Hymes and Morton Fried, June 17.
___. l973. Letter to Morton Fried, March 17.

*Letters cited in References are on file at the American
Philosophical Society. For articles by William S. Willis see
following bibliography of his work.


[From “A Tribute to William S. Willis, Jr., paper presented by
James P. Gallagher, at the 82nd Annual Meeting of the American
Anthropological Association, Chicago, November 16-20, l983]

1955 Colonial Conflict and the Cherokee Indians, 1710-1760.
University Microfilms, Ann Arbor (Dissertation).
l957 “The Nation of Bread,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 4, No. 2,
1963a “Divide and Rule: Red, White, and Black in the
Southeast,” Journal of Negro History, 48(3):157-176.
Reprinted in:
(a) Leonard Dinnerstein and Kenneth T. Jackson (eds.),
American Vistas, 1607-1877. New York, London, and
Toronto: Oxford University Press, l971, Vol. I, 1st ed.
(b) Charles M. Hudson (ed.) Red, White, and Black:
Symposium on Indians in the Old South, Southern
Anthropological Society Proceedings, No. 5. Athens:
University of Georgia Press, l971.
(c) Bobbs-Merrill Reprints in Black Studies, BC-323.
(d) Bruce A. Glasrud and Alan M. Smith (eds), Promises to
Keep. Rand-McNally and Co., l972.
1963b “Patrilineal Institutions in Southeastern North
America,” Ethnohistory, (3):250-269.
l970a “Anthropology and Negroes on the Southern Colonial
Frontier,” in Jones C. Curtis and Levis L. Gould
(eds.), The Black Experience in America: Selected
Essays, pp. 33-50. Austin, University of Texas Press.
1970b “Review of J.K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole
War, 1835-1842.” American Anthropologist, 72(3):636.
l972 “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet,” in Dell
Hymes (ed.), Reinventing Anthropology, New York,
Pantheon Books.
Reprinted in:
Morton H. Fried (ed.), Explorations in Anthropology:
Readings in Cultures, Man, and Nature, New York, Thomas
Y. Crowell Co. l973, pp. 459-474.
l975 “Franz Boas and the Study of Black Folklore,” In John
W. Bennett (ed.), The New Ethnicity: Perspectives from
Ethnology, St. Paul, West Publishing Co.
l980 “Fusion and Separation: Archaeology and Ethnology in
Southeastern North America,” In Stanley Diamond, (ed.)
Theory and Practice: Essays presented to Gene Weltfish,
The Hague, Mouton.
In Press “Indian-Black Relationships,” in Raymond D. Fogelson,
(ed.) Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 13
(Southeast), Washington D.C., Smithsonian.


1961 “Patrilineal Institutions in the Southeast,” 60th
Annual Meeting, American Anthropological Association,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Nov. 16-19.
l965 “Fusion and Separation: Two Processes Involved in
Developmental Sequences of the Southeastern United
States,” 69th Annual Meeting, Texas Academy of Science,
Dallas, Texas, December 9-11.
l967 “Fusion and Separation: Two Processes Involved in One
Developmental Sequence in Southeastern North America,”
Atlanta, Georgia, March 30 – April 1. (Revised and
expanded version of earlier paper).
1968 “Anthropology and Negroes on the Southern Colonial
Frontier,” The Negro in American History Lecture
Series, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, October 24.
1969 “Anthropology and the Primitives,” The Hockaday School,
Dallas, Texas, Feb. 24.
“Why North American Anthropology has Ignored North
American Negroes,” SMU Graduate Anthropology Club,
l973 “Franz Boas and the Study of Black Folklore,” l973
Joint Meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society
and the American Ethnological Society, March 8-10.
l983 “Dubious Boasiana” Seminar Series Anthropology
Department, Graduate Students and Faculty, Columbia
University, April 20.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of William S. Willis Jr, who was my first mentor in anthropology. I am very grateful to his wife, Gene Willis, for her generous cooperation in the research for this paper and for her willingness to critique drafts. I am also grateful to Ira E. Harrison for his encouragement to write this paper and for his critiques along the way. Dell Hymes provided important insights in his comments on the final draft.

Back to Peggy Sanday’s

This homepage is maintained by