The University of Akron joins the broader community in mourning the passing of the Honorable retired Judge James R. Williams, a two-time UA alumnus, civil rights leader and jurist who was the first African American to serve as a Summit County Common Pleas judge. Judge Williams passed away early Friday, Nov. 6. He was 88.
Judge Williams, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education in 1960 and a Juris Doctor in 1965 at UA, had a distinguished legal career, both as an attorney and on the bench. He was among the first African Americans to graduate from UA’s School of Law after it became affiliated with the University in 1959.
“Judge Williams was a revered figure among Akron Law alumni and in the Akron legal community,” says Christopher J. Peters, dean of UA’s School of Law. “Among his many accomplishments, he will be remembered as a mentor to countless attorneys who have gone on to enjoy their own distinguished careers, including many Black lawyers. His legacy will remain long after his passing.”
A native of Columbus, Miss., Judge Williams moved to Ohio following active service with the U.S. Army. Prior to becoming a judge, he taught in the Akron Public Schools, and served as a senior staff member for the city of Akron's Department of Planning and Urban Development. He also served as a member of the Akron City Council while in private law practice.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Williams as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. In 1982, he returned to the private practice of law. He was appointed judge of the Akron Municipal Court in 1983 and was elected to the court in 1985 and again in 1987.
Judge Williams became the first African American judge on the Summit County Common Pleas Court when he was appointed to the bench in 1989. He was elected in 1990 to serve the unexpired term of Judge John Reece. He was re-elected to full terms on the court in 1992 and 1998.
Judge Williams also was a civil rights activist, leader of many civic organizations and pioneer in providing housing for moderate- and low-income families and senior citizens. During the 1960s, he served as secretary of the Akron NAACP and vice president of the Ohio NAACP. Judge Williams was the 25th General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first intercollegiate historically African American Greek-lettered fraternity. He was also a member of Sigma Pi Phi, Fraternity, Inc., Beta Rho Boule.
In the late 1960s, Judge Williams was the principal founder of Alpha Phi Alpha Homes Inc., a non-profit corporation that has built more than 1,600 units of housing in Northeast Ohio. That non-profit corporation named a 148-unit, senior citizens apartment building “The James R. Williams Tower” in his honor.
“The Honorable Judge James R. Williams was a gentle giant and towering force in Northeast Ohio. His contributions in government, politics and human services have changed the course of humanity. He was a true friend and mentor to all who knew him,” says Dr. Sheldon B. Wrice, associate dean for undergraduate studies and education in the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences, and interim vice president for inclusion and equity and chief diversity officer.
Judge Williams’ impact was felt in the community through his involvement in several organizations. He was a trustee with the Akron Children’s Hospital, Leadership Akron, Akron Roundtable, Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Akron Community Foundation and Akron City Club. He was also a member of the University of Akron Foundation Board from 1998-2007 and a benefactor to the University. As a student, he was a member of the Zips baseball team.
Among his many recognitions, Judge Williams was named as one of the 100 most influential Black Americans by Ebony magazine. He was given Alumni Honor Award in 1990 by the UA Alumni Association, The University of Akron School of Law Outstanding Alumnus Award in 2001 and The University of Akron Public Administration Urban Light Award in 2004. The degree of Doctor of Humane Letters was conferred on Judge Williams in 2006. Friends, professional associates, fellow School of Law alumni and other colleagues of Judge Williams paid tribute to him with the establishment of The Honorable James R. and Catherine D. Williams Scholarship Fund.
Judge Williams was preceded in death by his first wife, Catherine, and is survived by his wife, Jewell Cardwell-Williams; two children, Michael (Annalisa) and Jacqueline Walton (Kyle); and four grandchildren.