The gospel singer, historian, and educator has a voice and a presence that demand attention. Williams captured the hearts and minds of people across our state and region who’ve witnessed her chronicle the history of the Civil Rights movement through song.
Born and raised in Garner, N.C., Williams grew up spending summer with her grandparents in Smithfield, N.C. Music was an integral part of her daily life – her father was a quartet singer and her grandmother was always singing.
“When her heart was heavy there were times when she would just be moaning,” says Williams. “Those songs gave her the tenacity when she was called names, when she was treated disrespectfully. It was like she was really telling me don’t allow what people say to you to be a blocking of you going further but use it as a stepping stone.”
In a typical performance, Williams weaves together African American spirituals from the Civil War era with more modern anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, connecting generations of music and social change.
Meet gospel singer, historian, and educator Mary D. Williams in this video produced by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
“The African American slaves talked about the power of the music. It was a way of communicating something over and above what the overseer could understand. The slave community understood exactly what every song meant. It was a way of escape,” says Williams. “The thing about the songs of the enslaved is that they always looked upward. I’m not in slavery, but there are still issues and concerns of our day and trials and tribulations…and the power of a song is a way that you can deliver your own soul.”
Williams first experimented with combining music and history in a concert inspired by writer and scholar Tim Tyson’s book Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson witnessed the performance and was moved to tears. The two ultimately began teaching a class together at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University called “The South in Black and White.” At the beginning of every class, Williams opens the session with music.
“I think people are fascinated not just with the history but [by] the fact that when I present they get to join in. There’s an experience we are all having together,” says Williams. “We develop a community.”
When asked what makes North Carolina music special, Williams says, “North Carolina just has such a presence. We have a lot of history. It is complicated, but in that complication, songs have come up out of it. It came up out of the burden. It comes up out of sorrow, joy, and happiness. It comes up out of family, and I think that’s what makes people feel it. You’re not just singing something as an empty shell. You literally have lived it, and then you’re able to share it. That, again, makes a community.”