On the Peace Corps new website yesterday I noted that  The Franklin H. Williams Award Ceremony will be held on September 9, 2010 at the Peace Corps Headquarters in D.C. The announcement listed the years that the Award has been given in Williams’ name. It does not say, however, that the first  Franklin H. Williams award ceremony was held in the Regional Recruitment Office in New York City in 1999, and that the New York Office named it “The Franklin H. Williams Award” and held the event.

Now, nothing gets lost faster in the Peace Corps than its history so I thought (since I was involved!) I would detail how the Franklin H. Williams Award came about in the first place.

At the time, I was the Regional Manager of the office and one of my recruiters,  Leslie Jean-Pierre (Guinea 1997-99), came to me with the suggestion of having an event in New York City that would highlight minority recruitment.

I suggested the Schomburg Center in Harlem as the site for the event. Their famous Director, Howard Dodson, Jr., was an RPCV from Ecuador (1964-66). Leslie and the other Recruiters picked five minority RPCVs who had helped us with recruitment, and had interesting and successful careers.

I suggested “Franklin Williams” as the honorary name for the award as I knew Williams slightly from the early years, and he was from Queens, New York, and had gone to Fordham Law School in the Bronx.

I called Chuck Baquet (Somalia 1965-67), the former Ambassador, and then the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, and asked Chuck to come up to New York to present the awards which we designed in our New York Office.

Going back to Franklin Williams and his history with the agency. He was a high-profile minority in the Peace Corps in those early Mad Men Days of the agency. His first job at the agency was Chief of the Division of Private Organization. This office was involved with private agencies (CARE, Experiment in International Living, YMCA, etc.) and he negotiated with them on training programs and overseas administration.

Williams was a tough guy, one of the famous Mad Men, who had been an assistant to Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP in New York before going to San Francisco as the NAACP director on the West Coast. He was a friend of Harris Wofford and through Wofford came to the agency. One story that Wofford told me, and to show you how difficult it was for African-Americans in the U.S. in the early Sixties, was that when Williams wanted to buy a house in Maryland, Harris and his wife, Claire, pretended they were the buyers, as white owners won’t sell to blacks in Chevy Chase or Bethesda.

Wofford and Williams had become friends when Wofford was teaching law at Notre Dame (this was just before the Kennedy campaign) and Harris invited Williams to ND to give a series of lectures called “The Changing Legal Status of the Negro in America.”

Wofford then got Williams involved with the Kennedy campaign where William ran the voter registration drive, and when Harris went to work in the White House as special assistant to President Kennedy for civil rights, Harris called Franklin to D.C.

Williams had been offered jobs with the Civil Rights Commission and the State Department in the new Administration, but considered both jobs boring. Wofford wanted him in the Peace Corps, however, Williams wasn’t particularly fond of Shriver.

In her book, Come As You Are, Coates Redmon quotes Williams, who was then working for the attorney general of California, Stanley Monk. 

“I didn’t want to see Sarge particularly,” Williams recalls, “and I said so. Harris knew why. He’d taken me to see Sarge during the campaign when Sarge was running minority affairs. There he was, up in this big hotel suite with all these blacks and Chicanos. That turned me off. Special segregated treatment was not my style.

“But I figured, what the hell, I’m here. Might as well see where Sarge is now. Well, he was at the barricades. And boy! He began pounding his desk and saying, ‘This is where the action is. You gotta come with me!’ He made it sound so damn exciting.  I said, ‘Like when?’ He said, ‘Oh, now. Today. Well how about tomorrow?’ I saw he wasn’t kidding. I said. ‘But Sarge, I can’t leave the attorney general’s office just like that.’

Sarge said, ‘Yes you can.’ And he picked up the phone and called Stanley Mosk in California. He said, ‘Stanley, we gotta have your assistant, Williams.’

From the Peace Corps Williams went onto work for the UN, then was the US Ambassador to Ghana, and from 1970 to his death in 1990, at the age of 72, he was the head of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, that is an educational foundation working for minorities in the US and Africa.

To our event in New York in 1999, we invited, among others, Mrs. Williams, Franklin’s widow. She graciously came and remarked that this was the first time the Peace Corps had remembered her husband and the work he had done for the agency in those early days.

After the  Schomburg Center event in Harlem, I talked to Chuck about making the Frank Williams Awards national by moving it to Washington, D.C. Chuck agreed and the Frank Williams Awards went national.

Now, I hope that those in D.C. who are putting on this year’s Franklin Williams Award will be gracious enough to note when they gather on September 9, 2010, that it all started  at the New York Peace Corps Recruitment Office with a suggestion from Leslie Jean-Pierre (Guinea 1997-99).