In 1982, Dr. Marsha Rhea Williams became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in computer science. Her dissertation, “The Design of the Computer-Assisted Query Language (CAQL) System,” dealt with user experience querying large databases. Dr. Williams is like a lot of other women in the field of computer science. She didn’t set out to make history, she set out to show that she belonged. Throughout her entire career, she has been sharing the knowledge that she learned and giving back to those around her. Today at the age of 74, Dr. Williams is still giving back to the community. We can learn a lot from Dr. Williams’ life, charity, and mission to make the tech field more diverse.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Williams took an interest in STEM at an early age. She received her B.S. in physics from Beloit College in 1969 and then her M.S. in physics from the University of Michigan in 1971. While studying for her doctorate, Dr. Williams decided that she wanted to teach. Dr. Williams would teach at the University of Mississippi, Memphis State University, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University. She is still tenured at Tennessee State University to this day. Dr. Williams was also one of the first African American professors to hold a teaching position in engineering and computer science at two of these universities (The University of Mississippi and Tennessee State University). Dr. Williams expressed the belief that the best way to give back to minorities would be to increase their representation in STEM. Sharing her knowledge of the field and teaching others was the first step in her plan.
Throughout her many years in education, Dr. Williams would stress the importance of STEM in the Black community. Being one of the first in her field gave her an appetite for seeing others excel alongside her. She headed several organizations for minorities in STEM such as Project MISET (Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology), the National Society of Engineering Students, and the Association of Excellence in Computer Science, and Physics. In these organizations, Dr. Williams gave resources to people on how to succeed in STEM, helped elevate current students to new heights, and preached that everyone should help others in turn.
Dr. Williams’s legacy is important for several reasons. The first is that Dr. Williams gave hope to others who did not see themselves in the computer science field. Many Black people, women, and Black women saw not only a mirror in her but a mentor as well. Another reason is that Dr. Williams unselfishly poured from herself into others as she made her journey. Dr. Williams did not focus only on herself. She did not hoard resources, or even try to monetize her journey. Dr. Williams lifted as she climbed. She saw her community and thought why don’t I build them up with me so that we all can make it to the finish line?
Lifting as we climb was the original motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). It means that as you yourself make a way up the proverbial ladder of success, you are also lifting your fellow community with you. In that way when you are at the top of the ladder, the community that you climbed with can also taste that success. This is something that gets lost these days when we talk about building diverse and meaningful communities. Whether it be in tech or in our day-to-day life. Fortunately, we have the life and legacy of Dr. Williams to remind us that there is nothing more honorable in life than helping others. If there is one lesson to be learned by the wonderful life of Dr. Williams, it’s that we can all grow, learn and help each other toward a better tomorrow.