Delores Seneva Williams was born on November 17, 1934, in Louisville Kentucky to the union of the late Harvey Williams Sr. and the late Gladys Woods. She passed away peacefully on November 17, 2022, in Nashville Tennessee.
Years ago, when asked what Delores was like as a child, her mother described her as quiet. Her mother said “little Delores was born watching. At an early age, she spent a lot of her time observing. She didn’t speak much. But when she did, she always had something important to say and she wasn’t shy about asking questions”. Delores grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist household. She asked her mother why she had to go to church on Saturday. “I want to play outside, all the other kids go to church on Sunday” she whispered, mindful not to sound too sassy. Her mother’s response was “God hears prayers and praises every day of the week. Our special day is on Saturday, you don’t want God to miss our special prayers and songs on Saturdays, do you? Now, let’s go to church”. Delores was immersed in many activities of the church. She said her mother and the Church made her feel safe. Church shielded her from some of the harsh realities of being African American and living in the Jim Crow South. She once said that even as a child she paid attention to people’s reactions to the horrific and unjust experiences that occurred in the segregated south. She paid particular attention to what people did to cope, to survive and to live joyous lives. She quietly watched and listened to the strong women of the church who often-found ingenious ways to navigate in spaces that were not designed to affirm their blackness or their womanhood. They persevered and thrived. Delores learned to do the same.
In 1950, Delores graduated from Central High School in Louisville Kentucky. After which, she worked at a local tobacco factory. She said she was not made for hard labor, and she quit the job after two days. When she sought to obtain her pay, the boss said, “I knew you were not going to last, but people don’t usually come back for pay after just two days of work.” Her quick retort was “I worked for it didn’t I? Now, give me my money”. Her response to the boss was deeply rooted in a childhood conversation with her mother. “Always keep your pocket handkerchief swinging” her mother said. “Remember to take care of yourself, remember to make your own way, and your own money so you can have your own say.” Delores learned this lesson well.
For several years, Delores worked as a reporter at the African American newspaper, the Louisville Defender. In 1958, she married Robert C. Williams a Presbyterian minister. At that time, she became Presbyterian. She and Robert were active in the Civil Rights movement, participating in numerous marches in Alabama, Tennessee, and New York. While managing marriage and the birth of her first two children, Rita and Celeste, she attended the University of Louisville and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965. By 1969 she had given birth to two additional children, Steven and Leslie. Later she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University.
As a student, Delores was the co-founder of the Black Women’s Caucus at Union Theological Seminary. She worked for several years at Drew University as an Assistant Professor while finishing her dissertation. She earned a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1991. Shortly thereafter, Delores was appointed Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary.
In 1993, the publication of her groundbreaking book Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk helped lay the foundation for the development and emergence of Womanist Theology. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles, essays, and book chapters. It is not surprising that her scholarly writing is often described as poetic. She was a Poet and a Theologian. She leaves behind an extensive body of published and unpublished scholarly work and poetry, amounting to over one hundred works.
Delores Williams was inaugurated as the Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in 1996, becoming the first African American woman to be installed into a named chair at Union. While teaching at Union, she trained in community organizing and worked extensively with Harlem Initiatives Together.
In the mid 1990’s, she joined St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. She taught Sunday school to elementary school children. She was a sought-after speaker by church women who said she spoke in a manner that everyone could understand.
Delores received numerous awards, honors, and accolades. She was proud to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from Central High School, because it is an honor that both her mother and husband also received. In 2008, she received the Unitas Distinguished Alumni/ae Award from Union Theological Seminary. More recently she was honored by Trailblazers 2018: Beyond the Temple Door a Tribute to Dr. Delores S. Williams at Union Theological Seminary. She was touched deeply by the outpouring of love and support demonstrated by colleagues, former students, and friends.
Through her scholarship, activism and community service, Delores Williams challenged us to think about the ways in which we can address inequality, injustice, poverty, and violence. She left for us an example of the courage and resilience requisite to tackle the social ills that negatively impact the lives of so many people.
Delores Williams retired from Union Theological Seminary in 2004. She moved to Louisville Kentucky to help care for her mother. After her mother and sister Gertrude passed away, she moved to Nashville Tennessee to be with her children.
She is preceded in death by her husband Robert C. Williams, daughter Rita Williams- Seay, siblings Harvey Williams Jr., Gertrude Stennis, Albert Hayden and, Michael Williams, brothers -in- law Roosevelt Stennis, John Julius Williams, Harold Williams, Kenneth Williams, Donald Williams and, sister-in- law Frances Williams.
She is survived by children, Celeste Williams, Steven Williams, Leslie Williams, sisters, Lonnie Ali, Marilyn Williams, son-in-law, Orcenta Seay, sisters -in- law, Ruth Williams, Emma Jean Smith, Betty Williams, Bonnie Williams and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.
Delores Williams lived a full and joyous life. She loved and treasured her family and friends. She was especially grateful for the long friendships she shared with her dear friends Betty Bolden and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes.
In the final years of her life, she met health challenges with the courage, strength, and tenacity of a warrior woman. She never gave up and was always faithful. Now she rests, and she is loved.