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Alumni Spotlight: Terrion L. Williamson, PhD

An alumni of the Department of African American Studies, Dr. Terrion L. Williamson. talks about her academic career at UIC. Williamson also shares information on her upcoming book project. Williamson was the keynote speaker for the 2018 Annual Grace Holt Lecture.

Image of Terrion L. Williamson, Ph.D.

“…the first class I took in African American studies and only the second time in my life I had a black woman as a professor.”

Terrion L. Williamson, Ph.D.  |  Interview by: Zorgie Sanchez, Social Media and Outreach GA

What city were you raised in, how did it form what you wanted to do as you grew up?

Terrion L. Williamson: I was born and raised in Peoria Illinois, a city that is about a two and a half hour drive from Chicago. It is not a suburb of Chicago because people often think that it is a suburb that there is only Chicago in Illinois but it turns out that it is not. I was raised in Peoria which is not unlike the south side of Chicago so a predominately black working-class community where the schools and institutions were ultimately deemed failing under no child left behind and those kinds of things. All of those schools where I grew up now look very different, my high school is now an academy and those sorts of things. And partly as a consequence of where I was raised, I am a first-generation college student, so a lot of things about higher education I didn’t know or understand including the distinctions of the types of universities or colleges. And so through a series of events I ended up at UIC which ultimately ended up working out very well, I ended up here at the right time for me. I think of my position coming from a sort of poor and working-class community being at UIC which has a lot of students like me. I worked at a north riverside mall the whole time I was here, at footlocker up to 30 hours per week and for a year my senior year I lived on the south side of Chicago which is to say that I think that all of that is imprinted on the work I do. I am still committed to working-class black communities you know the work I am doing now the project I am engaged in now around black women victims of serial murder part of that has to do with my staying connected with the kinds of communities I was raised in. I live in north Minneapolis now which again is the blackest part of the city, it is the most economically depressed part of the city. I moved there intentionally because I want to be engaged in that kind of community. And so I think that I continue to be shaped by the place that I came from and I think it had to do with how I ended up at UIC. Because coming from the community that I come from nobody was telling us to go apply to Yale, they weren’t even talking about that to us. Ultimately I think that’s fine because I got the best education, the education I needed. I would not have wanted to go any other place but I’m talking at the level of what the expectation was for us. Even students like me who were like AP honors my whole career that still wasn’t the way in which we got thought about. The best you could maybe do is end up at U of I, that is sort of the way it worked. So that’s part of why I ended up at UIC and it worked out very well for me but it is all conditioned by where I came from.

What was your undergraduate experience like at UIC?

Williamson: To be honest with you, I mentioned that I worked at north riverside the whole time I was here, I worked a lot. I worked so much that the friends I made in undergrad mainly came from work and from, I went to church on the south side, and so from the church. The friends I had here on campus you know I had a handful of folk but I spent so much time working, like I said i did a double major in four years which means I was taking 18-19 semester hours and I was the head cashier at the footlocker at north riverside which at that time, I don’t think they exist anymore, It was a really big store which is the only reason it matters I was the head cashier because it meant I wasn’t just cashiering I was literally hiring people creating schedules like all of that kind of stuff so it was intense. So so much of my undergraduate life was based on work and you know UIC has the feel of a commuter school so there wasn’t the kind of place where I am at now or when I worked at Michigan State, the kind of sort of campus community in the same kind of way a big sports teams. So it was a very different kind of place for me and I think it takes a certain kind of student to thrive here actually as a consequence of that, Its like folks are, everybody’s working, most people are living off campus everyone has there sort of life and thing going on and have to figure out a way to make it and that is what it felt like for me and I think it takes, it often takes a really independent student and kind of students that come from places I came from where you’re sort of used to juggling a whole lot of balls in the air and making it work. And that’s what its like, I made some great friends during my time here and I came to love the city but it was very much like work and go to class and church.

As an alum of the African American Studies department, and a Grace Holt winner, was there a class, mentor, or event that you felt has shaped your career and put you on the path you are on now?

Williamson: So the class that stands out most for me was the first class I took, I believe I was a sophomore here, the first class I took in African American studies and only the second time in my life I had a black woman as a professor. And I just remember being dazzled by this woman she kind of had a stern bearing but she knew everything in the world I thought. And she was teaching me things about myself that I had never known and coming where I came from the black history we got was MLK Rosa Parks Civil Rights Movement but to have someone teaching me things that I was compelled and interested in and never thought I would be compelled by or interested in. And I took that course with Barbara Ramsey. And that ended up being really influential for me because that course got me wanting to take more and more courses to the point where I ultimately I ended up picking up the double major. And from her I ended up taking classes with folks, I don’t think any of these people are still here, Sterling Plump who was the first professor to take me to a blues club because that’s what he did with his classes which is also really influential for me a faculty member who would do those kinds of things. At the time the chair of the department was Dwight Mcsomething and I remember a moment in particular about him as you know, I had a certain kind of way I registered professors and it was this kind of at arm’s length distance sort of amazing creatures that I didn’t understand how they came to be who they were. I remember that I would see Dwight in other places on campus and he would just hug me and I just remember being like that can happen. And as a consequence of all of that and sort of the spirit that he fostered here, it really became such a home for me. I never took a class with Dwight but I was working with him as a student assistant of some sort and James Hall and Duriel Harris, like these folks whose names I can still rattle off I can’t tell you one person, not one professor I had in the English department, not a single one. I just don’t remember it. But my experience in Af Is I sort of remember fondly.

I think there is all kinds of ways career-wise that majoring in afro has been a help in terms of, you know I went to law school directly after undergrad and it was really helpful getting me because you know law schools at least in my experience there are very few law schools that are equipped to talk about social justice, inequality, intersectionality and any of those kinds of buzz words that we know inwards and outwards or the consequence of dealing with black studies. And there are all sorts of fields you can go into where the kinds of training you get here you get in the afro department can be helpful but even outside of thinking career, what it has meant for me to understand things about myself as a consequence of the kind of formal training I’ve received has been indispensable not in just my career but in my life  so even things like coming from the southside Peoria, coming from this working class community where the common rhetoric I always hear about that place was about black folks just won’t do that, black folks can’t, the kind of pathologizing discourse around black folks which if you don’t have a certain kind of training and you find yourself in these communities I guess it’s easy enough to say black folks just don’t get their stuff together. And the kinds of training that you get at a place like this tells you no that aint so, it tells you it helps you understand structurally how the southside of Chicago the westside of Chicago the southside of Peoria the north Minneapolis all come to look the way they look and that is helpful not just in terms of career but in terms of understanding the way in which the world functions and the kinds of things that we need to just be a better place for our own children grandchildren nieces and nephews whoever else that we give the world over to so I think it’s important in all sorts of ways .

Is there a project you are currently working on now that you can share with us?

Williamson: I am working my current book project which is on black women who have been victims of serial murder which is something that I had started years ago. I write a little bit about a case that happened in my hometown between 2003- 2004 nine black women were murdered in my hometown. In grad school, I started researching that case and I write about what happened in my hometown, I write about Peoria in my first book. As a consequence of that research, I’m now working on a larger project about black women who have been victims of serial murder that will be the next book project. As part of that larger project, I’m working on Gary Indiana between 2013 and 2014 I believe 7 black women were murdered and the person who is accused of those murders goes on trial in the fall. Part of my trip here was spending some time in Gary trying to get to know the city a little bit. All of Gary looks like the south side of Peoria, where I come from and there is a story to be told there and so I am working on that I want to do a podcast around that series of deaths as the trial is going on that’s part of what I’m hoping to be able to do. So that’s my research project I also recently launched the Black Midwest Initiative so I am interested as a consequence of being from Peoria writing about Peoria doing undergrad in Chicago, I am now in Minnesota writing about black folks in the midwest and what that means and what that looks like because I think regionally the midwest is a city that in terms of black studies it gets the least amount of attention. But I think the last election cycle where middle America came to stand for angry working-class white men yet I think there is a whole narrative yet to be told about black folks in the midwest in the ways in which a lot of these the stuff around serial murders is all affected by the industrialization, globalization in the way that specifically affects black folks and people in the midwest. Something that I am doing with the Black Midwest Initiative is me and other scholars right now is mainly scholars in Minnesota, scholars, artists, graduate students, undergraduate students throughout the region who were interested in talking about these issues and so we want to pull together our first symposium in fall of 2019 and that is the other big project I am working on.