Meet the First Black Student to be Named UW Homecoming Royalty

Carolyn Williams still catches her breath when recounting the day she learned Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the father of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement, was killed by an assassin’s bullet. It happened over a half a century ago, but the memory feels like it was just yesterday.

“That’s something you never forget,” said Williams, who was a senior at Washington Park High School in Racine on April 4, 1968. “I remember it distinctly. It was a horrible day. Once we got the news, everything went silent.”

The news hit us like a ton of bricks. Emotions swirled with anguish, fear and sorrow.  Williams, a member of her high school’s student council at the time, felt the rising tension and prayed Dr. King’s murder would not trigger the violence he fought against.

“All of classes were canceled and they sent all the students to assembly in the auditorium,” Williams recalls. “Students were pissed off, throwing things and tearing things up. They wanted to riot. It was just horrible.

“I admired this man and knew he stood for nonviolence. So, I jumped up on the table and told everybody to sit down! This is not going to help us at all! And, they did,” she added.

In the eight years prior to his demise, Dr. King transformed the American civil rights movement that became a national crusade. Dubbed the apostle of nonviolence, the Baptist minister inspired people from across the social spectrum and turned economic and racial injustices into major political issues across the globe.

Dr. King paved the way for freedom and future possibilities for marginalized communities. For Williams, it landed her in Wisconsin history books.

“That moment in time, it was just the beginning of my quest to do better, and to be better and to get my education,” said Williams, who admired Dr. King’s commitment to social change.

Five months after Dr. King’s death, Williams enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She arrived armed with determination not to have the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s life be in vain, along with a $500 scholarship newly named in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

Carolyn Williams wearing her crown as celebrity Bill Cosby poses for pictures with UW Homecoming Court

Dr. King had won victories on desegregation and voting rights. So, it was no surprise for Williams to find students of color from across the country, drawn to UW-Madison which welcomed them when many other educational institutions barred the door because of their skin color.

Williams was raised in a church home. Her dad was a tailor and an African Methodist Episcopal Church preacher. The entire family possessed concert-worthy singing skills. Both parents stressed the importance of discipline and getting a good education. 

A bought with rheumatic fever as a child resulted in books becoming Williams’ favorite escape from the inflammatory disease. That love for reading aided in her first year of college. She initially pursued a degree in fashion design, but quickly switched to studying history.

The next year, unbeknownst to Williams, she was nominated by her Badger dorm mates from Cole Hall to reign on the homecoming court. It thrusted the sophomore into the spotlight as she and other young women on the court went on tour to promote their academic dreams and talents before civic groups like the Rotary Club and Shriners, along with athletic organizations. It was the tradition.

“I got into this on a fluke,” she chuckled. “I didn’t ask to be a part of this. I was thrown into it.”

In October 1969, wearing a gown and overcoat that she designed and sewn herself, Williams was crowned UW-Homecoming Queen, the first African American female student to do so since the predominately white university began the spirited celebration in 1911. 

The history-making decision was made 18 months following Dr. King’s assassination. 

“There were two white girls and four Black girls on homecoming court that year,” said Williams, a member of Zeta Xi Core Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. “The makeup of this homecoming court, I think, was designed to be more favorable towards African Americans because of the atmosphere and climate following Dr. King’s death. The university was ready to do something different than they’ve ever done before.”

Breaking the racial barrier was bittersweet. She said she was acutely aware that the promises of freedom and equality didn’t appease everyone.

“When we entered the stadium and walked down on the field I was scared,” Williams said. “There were 40,000 people in the stands. In the back of my mind, I just didn’t know if anyone had it out for me. I was scared for my safety.”

The momentous day occurred without incident as William’s coronation marked a turning point in race relations at UW-Madison.

“I was too young to understand the impact of taking the crown,” Williams said. “I knew I made history that day, but it took years to come to grip with how significant it really was and how great this was for all of us. It was a blessing and an honor. “

Williams received another crown the following year when she represented the state of Wisconsin at the Miss Bronzeville Beauty and Talent Pageant in New York and won. The national pageant for young women of color was organized since major pageants did not welcome African American participants. In fact, the Miss America contest “rule #7, read:” contestants must be of good health and of the white race.”

Williams’ back-to-back victories were recognized by her hometown mayor who declared Sept. 13, 1969, Carolyn Williams Day!

Williams graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Williams is working as a psychotherapist in California’s Bay Area.  Williams said her treasured crown and gown remain in her family’s home in Racine. 

Now 70, Williams attributes her success to her parents’ loving upbringing and Dr. King’s message about the value of a good education, adding intelligence plus character are the goal of true education. The equal justice crusader refused to accept that individuals were powerless to change the status quo, just as an individual with a growth mindset refuses to accept that they are not good enough, smart enough, or talented enough.

“Dr. King gave us a great mindset,” Williams said. “I believed in what Dr. King stood for and his philosophy of nonviolence that he got from Mahatma Gandhi. I believed back in high school and I believe it to this day.”

Twenty-three years later, in 1992, Darrell Allbritton was selected as the first African American student to be named UW-Homecoming King, an honor that he described as an “emotional experience.” The university’s homecoming ball ended in 2011.