University of Maryland Eastern Shore The 125th Anniversary
125th Anniversary
"Celebrating the Journey: The 125th Anniversary of UMES" 1886-2011

John Taylor Williams

John Taylor Williams was a towering figure – figuratively and literally – during the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s first 125 years.

John T. Williams

He could be fairly described as the “father of Maryland State College,” as UMES was known during the entire 23 years he was the school’s top administrator.

Born in Minden, La. on Oct. 24, 1904, Williams came to Princess Anne as the nation was re-adjusting to life after World War II. He succeeded Robert A. Grigsby, the school’s only chief executive during the 10 years it was called Princess Anne College.

When Williams arrived at the start of the 1947-48 academic year, he took the helm of an institution with a new title for its CEO. He was the first to be called “president.” By the following year, the school was known by a new name, Maryland State College.

Most vestiges of a segregated public education system still existed, but Williams set about making Maryland State into an institution modeled after those where he previously had studied and worked.

His impact was immediate and long-lasting.

A reorganization of the school’s academic programs and an aggressive recruitment effort aimed at students and faculty transformed the college overnight.

At 6’ 4”, Williams was a commanding figure on the campus and in the community. He employed a no-nonsense management approach during turbulent but exciting times. His drive and determination did much to establish the college as an integral part of Maryland’s public higher education system.

Maryland State students, circa early 1960s

Throughout much of Williams’ tenure, campus life tended to reflect that of the extended Negro family some 80 years after the end of the Civil War and slavery. Williams set high expectations for administrators, faculty and students.  Attending chapel was mandatory, modesty in dress was strongly encouraged, and profanity and cheating were never tolerated. Students were expected to act like ladies and gentlemen, and the curriculum reflected an emphasis on decorum and culture.


Williams’ vision for Maryland State included establishing an agricultural program to meet the demands of a still largely agrarian society, starting an ROTC program and nurturing successful athletic teams. His formula for success was built around recruiting more students, attracting federal aid, earning community support and achieving statewide recognition.

Maryland State was on the upswing during the 1950s. It routinely attracted nationally prominent figures to campus, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, controversial Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, (future) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and a firebrand young minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr.

Williams, a former athlete and coach, also ushered Maryland State into its football heyday and restructured the college’s academic program under the watchful and often scrutinizing eyes of blacks as well as whites.

Those successes notwithstanding, Williams expended much energy quieting naysayers, many of whom thought the college should be closed or converted into a prison or poultry research farm.  As it did during previous administrations, the college under Williams often found itself struggling to get its fair share of government funding to pay for academic programs and the modern facilities to house them.

Maryland State and Williams were not immune to the turmoil of the 1960s, when Baby Boomers opposed the Vietnam War and took up the cause for civil rights. Living and learning conditions sparked student protests, which sometimes spilled into the community and reached Annapolis. Tired of the unrest, he decided to retire in 1970.

By the end of his tenure, however, the university had become an integral part of the University of Maryland system. Maryland State was renamed the University of Maryland Eastern Shore shortly after Williams stepped down. He died July 13, 1971 at age 66 in Salisbury.

Today, John T. Williams Hall serves as a memorial to his life, to his administration and to his commitment to higher education for blacks. Thirty paces from the Williams hall portico is a brass marker beneath a stately magnolia tree put there in memory of the late president's wife, Jennie V. Wendell Williams, who died in 1961. 


"Celebrating the Journey: The 125th Anniversary of the
University of Maryland Eastern Shore" 1886-2011