Juanita Williamson and the HBCU Influence in Writing Instruction

Column by
Elizabeth Baddour

Profound social upheaval is frequently associated with discussions regarding many aspects of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including how scholars theorize writing instruction in higher education. The confluence of the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation protests combined with Vietnam War resistance simmered and threatened to boil over as America wrestled with the concept of democracy promised by the Constitution against democracy delivered in the minutia of daily life. Tensions regarding language use spilled over into the classroom as students, once barred from institutions of higher education because of their race, entered the halls of recently desegregated colleges—bringing their home language with them to rooms formerly occupied by predominately white middle-class students. The changing student demographic of the late 1960s informed an evolving praxis in college writing instruction leading to questions such as: What is “standard’ English? Is it ethical to demand a student to compromise their home language in service to adherence to a so-called “standard”? How is the ideology of standardization compatible with democratic principles of education? 

The homogenization of a society long segregated by race led writing scholars to deeply interrogate the very nature of the writing process and the ideologies undergirding its practice. The presence of Black students and the mellifluous language they brought to the classroom simultaneously upended and enlightened the field of rhetoric and composition—and allowed for the demise of the rudimentary in favor of the rhetorical. This brief essay underscores one HBCU instructor’s role in advancing our understanding of the connectedness of identity with language and culture through her innovative implementation of linguistics to writing instruction. 

Juanita Williamson is an important yet overlooked educator in the political and pedagogical milieu of the turbulent era under study. As one of the first African American women to earn a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Michigan, Williamson worked tirelessly for more than four decades as an English professor at LeMoyne-Owen College, a small HBCU in Memphis, Tennessee where she received her undergraduate education. A proponent of linguistic pluralism, Williamson added her voice to the composition profession’s emerging debate on linguistic descriptivism—loosely defined as the study of how language is actually used—versus prescriptivism, or the study of how some believe language should be used. The prescriptivist view held sway in academe for most of the twentieth century; its reliance upon the intractability of rules surrounding grammar and language made it a sorting mechanism by which the “haves” and “have-nots” were easily identified, sorted and stigmatized. 

While teachers in predominately white institutions struggled with effective methods of teaching writing to students from underserved populations, Williamson’s linguistic training was instrumental in helping her HBCU students understand the structure of their home language when compared to “standard” English. Her 1957 essay, “What Can We Do About It? The Contribution of Linguistics to the Teaching of English” in the inaugural issue of the CLA Journal reflected her rising importance in the field of writing studies. In the essay, Williamson asserts the value of linguistics in helping students—marginalized after decades of enforced segregation—recognize the patterns and structure of language to facilitate the acquisition of the dominate dialect. Her article was critical for its recognition that students typically struggle with writing not for a lack of intelligence, but because their instructors use ineffective pedagogies such as skill and drill exercises. Williamson realized that rote drills are ineffective in establishing linguistic fluency. She is credited with advancing the linguistic turn, defined as a pedagogical shift from prescriptive methodologies—which enjoyed prominence in writing instruction during the first half of the twentieth century—to a practice that includes a consideration of the cultural significance of a student’s home dialect.

Williamson’s praxis was likely influenced by the philosophies of W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson who each championed the study of African American culture and history. Du Bois, himself an advocate of teaching the Black experience in higher education, called for HBCUs “to make provision for researched-based ‘scientific teaching’ to adults” as early as 1946 (p. 147). It can be argued that Williamson took up Du Bois’s call through her successful application of linguistic science to composition instruction.

Keith Gilyard notes the complementary nature of Carter G. Woodson’s advocacy of African American heritage in language study to Du Bois’s educational philosophy in his 1999 germinal College of Composition and Communication journal essay “African American Contributions to Composition Studies.” Woodson argues: “In the study of language in school, pupils were made to scoff at the Negro dialect as some peculiar possession of the Negro which they should despise rather than directed to study the background of this language as a broken-down African tongue—in short to understand their own linguistic history” (as cited in Gilyard p. 632). Rather than lay aside their African heritage, Williamson (1957) took a decidedly different approach to language study that was in direct opposition to prescriptivist pedagogical practices based on current-traditional rhetoric. She writes, “If we show him [the student] the structure of standard English and the structure of his own dialect, he will see what changes he should make, and if he wishes, he will do so” (pp. 26–27). Williamson, at a critical juncture in American history, brought awareness that the adherence to dominant discourse should be a choice, not a mandate; for dialect is, after all, a reflection of one’s personhood. A cultural shift toward acceptance of dialects of difference resulted from the gradual success of the long civil rights movement and was reflected in composition classrooms. At last, debates emerged among scholars challenging the prevailing status quo who valorized “standard” English as superior in a mythical language hierarchy. Sharon Crowley (1989) observed that “even the most hostile critics” of the mid-century cannot deny the benefit linguistics accorded compositionists during a period of great change in American social history (p. 501). Williamson and other advocates of the linguistic turn were pivotal in challenging instructors to invert traditional ways of teaching in favor of working with the language students brought with them to the classroom rather than diminishing it. Such a theoretical departure “emphatically rejected the claim . . . that instruction should present students with an ideal language” to which theirs must be made to conform (Crowley, 1989, pp. 501–2). In her adaptation of a linguistic perspective in teaching the Language of Wider Communication (LWC) to minority students, Williamson was a pioneer who became instrumental in creating space for socio-cultural justice through her pedagogy. Her linguistic training enabled her to discern that “skill and drill” exercises employed to rectify writing problems in the model of current-traditional rhetoric were ineffective in instructing linguistically diverse students. 

Research by Arnetha Ball and Pamela Ellis (2008) reveals that “students of color are disproportionately relegated to classrooms using drill exercises rather than interactive, meaningful approaches that require extended writing, reflection and critical thinking,” and it was exactly this dynamic Williamson sought to avoid (2008, p. 507). Also mirroring Williamson’s early contention, Nancy Mavrogenes and Nikolaus Bezruczko write “drill and skill exercises, which often predominate in the instruction in classrooms that serve poor and culturally diverse students are not the best approach for improving the writing of students of color” (as quoted in Ball and Ellis, 2008, p. 507). Williamson—without attribution from these contemporary scholars—long ago recognized that rote drills are ineffective in establishing linguistic fluency. Her innovative pedagogical approach, the linguistic turn, helped to modify the prescriptive approach to writing instruction featuring the “mandate of writing correctly” with the contrasting notion that writing and speaking are culturally informed. 

Gilyard (1999) notes that Williamson “deemed popular handbooks inadequate” for the students she taught at the small Memphis HBCU (p. 632). In her criticism of grammar drills as remediation for poor writing skills, Williamson argued that an inadequate understanding of the problems presented in teaching a student “standard” English is a reason many minority students have difficulty mastering writing—especially writing within the current-traditional rhetoric paradigm. Williamson wrote in the 1957 CLA Journal:

Our task, then is to help the student who wishes to rise to the level of a college student and graduate, to make a change from the sub-standard dialect of the language to a standard dialect. This involves not teaching him a set of rules and do’s and dont’s, but rather helping him to understand why we want him to change and what he must do to make the change. He must be given some knowledge of the structure of standard English and how this differs from the structure of the dialect he uses. He will then have the equipment necessary to make the change. For what we really attempt to do is to teach him a new set of linguistic habits. (p. 24)

Williamson recognized that the linguistic turn is an approach to English composition instruction that relies on contrastive analysis of dialects to promote versatility with language. She realized that race and language could be used as weapons of prejudice, or as a means by which to exclude certain students from attaining educational advancement. Of course, history is replete with instances of conquest in which one dialect or language was subsumed by the victor’s. Therefore, the claim that one dialect is unacceptable is tantamount to one group’s assertion that it holds dominance over another. Williamson, at a critical juncture in American history, brought awareness that the adherence to dominant discourse should be a choice, not a mandate; for dialect is, after all, a reflection of one’s personhood. Perhaps more important was the political assertion that informed her opinion: African Americans have just as much claim to LWC as anyone else. Williamson, as a nationally recognized authority on linguistics, used her position at her HBCU to help other African American students lay claim to what was theirs by their American citizenship.

Ironically, Williamson’s efforts to advance linguistic pluralism inadvertently led to the 1974 ratification of the Conference of College Composition and Communication’s Students’ Right to Their Own Language Resolution (SRTOL)—a resolution she vehemently opposed. Simply stated, STROL was adopted by the country’s largest professional organization of English teachers, the National Council of Teachers of English. It sought to end the prescriptive binary of “good” or “bad” English that enabled the perpetual segregation of students unfairly targeted for a dialect that varied from that of the status quo. The controversial SRTOL Resolution called upon English instructors to examine their own attitudes regarding the superiority of one dialect over another—and the potential that such a binary might create for a continued segregation of students based on the color of their language, instead of the color of their skins.  

Although Williamson upheld linguistic diversity, her opposition to SRTOL was based on her conviction that the 1970s trend advocating Black English was yet another means by which to disguise prejudice under the veil of acceptance. Her research demonstrated that linguistic differences were geographically based and not race-related, leading her to conclude there is no such thing as Black English. Instead, Williamson asserted in a l971 landmark article in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine that “features used to identify Black English are neither black nor white, but American” (p. 173). Williamson viewed facility with “standard” English language as a means by which underrepresented minorities could earn equal footing through discourse, she valorized their home dialect as a rhetorically viable alternative to “standard” English when situationally appropriate. During her productive career, Williamson resisted the tendency to ascribe racial features to language on the basis that ownership of the language of America is also the language of African Americans. In 1982, she noted that “standard” English and white English were considered synonymous terms: “Almost none of the recent studies done by sociolinguists of ‘Black English’ are really comparative studies of black and white speech. The assumption in them is that the white speakers speak Standard English [. . .] and black speakers speak something else” (1982, p. 86). Her life experiences had taught her that any dialect by any name would always be subordinate to LWC, and she was unwilling to concede the language she believed was hers by birthright.

The pursuit of full African American selfhood, embodied in the praxis of the HBCU, was evident in the pedagogy and scholarship of Juanita Williamson. In another snapshot of Williamson’s creative pedagogy, she clandestinely introduced the “forbidden” Zora Neal Hurston to her students. As Chair of the English Department at LeMoyne-Owen College, Williamson worked in an exceedingly conservative environment. Historically, HBCU presidents were white men. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, for nearly a century, common practice dictated that Black colleges appoint white presidents to oversee and govern predominately white faculties and administration (p. 93). This condition was owing to the reluctance of white founders and supporters of the Black colleges to “entrust control of the institutions to Black people” (p. 93).  Ironically, many of the most academically prestigious and well-funded Black colleges held out the longest before appointing Black presidents (p. 94). For example, Fisk, founded in 1866, appointed its first Black president in 1946, and Hampton three years later in 1949 (p. 94). Atlanta’s Spelman College, whose board of trustees were “dominated by friends of the Rockefeller family” did not see its first Black president until 1953, and Xavier University in New Orleans finally appointed a Black president in 1968 (p. 94).  

When LeMoyne-Owen College’s governing board finally appointed an African-American president in 1943, Williamson found his views to be even more circumspect as he succumbed to the dictates of the white governing board. This constraint forced her to employ creative teaching techniques to achieve her teaching goals. Because political and pedagogical mandates forbade Williamson from teaching contemporary African American authors such as Zora Neal Hurston in her English classes, she circumvented that political paradigm by facilitating a discussion upon how an “approved” white author might be viewed through the lens of a contemporary author’s attitude. In so doing, Williamson kept her own voice outside the conversation, thereby securing her professional safety while exposing her students to contemporary ideas. Through methods such as this, she deliberately carved out a small space of autonomy as she carefully tiptoed around conflict with politics in academe and even Memphis city leaders. Although her scholarship began in 1957, she continued to write and teach at LeMoyne-Owen College for forty years, retiring only because of failing health shortly before her death in 1993.

Nearly fifty years after the inaugural issue of the CLA Journal, Arnetha Ball and Ted Lardner (2005) assert: “A journey toward unleashing the literacies of AAVE in writing and composition classrooms begins with seeing with new eyes” (p.16). Williamson’s (1957) training as a linguist enabled her to “see with new eyes” that “understanding the syntactic structure of the language can help us with the ‘grammar problem’” (p. 26). She argues, “The student can be made to see that grammar is more than a collection of rules. Once he understands the patterns of English, he is well on his way to solving the problem intelligently” (Williamson, 1957, p. 26). Williamson identified three devices of importance in most grammatical relationships: word order, change in form or inflection, and word function. Noting that Southern dialects frequently elide the change in verb form, she observed, “Telling a student it is wrong [to use a phrase such as ‘he go’] does not help; he has been able to communicate up to this point, so why change?” (Williamson, 1957, p. 26). She astutely points out that if you offer an understanding of “the signaling devices” inherent in the structure of English language, the student will develop an affinity [for] “grasp[ing] the meaning of what he reads” (Williamson, 1957, p. 26).

Though she made substantial contributions to education, linguistics, and writing pedagogy, Williamson is largely overlooked in the history of composition. Her historical overshadowing may be attributed in large part to her resistance to Black English and its identification with race. In a critical analysis of the reception of Williamson’s book, A Various Language, her published essays and interviews with colleagues, three observations emerge: there are scholars who agree with her, scholars who disagree with her, and scholars who advance that her work deserves fuller credit for her contribution to linguistics and composition theory. Yet because she persisted in advancing an argument with which a consensus of linguists of her era disagreed, her scholarship was eclipsed by more compelling academic trends of the time, including increased emphasis on researched-based approaches to composition instruction. While her position on African American English may appear to contradict her devotion to her people, just the opposite is the case. Williamson’s academic stance on the controversial issues of her time were informed by her deep devotion to African Americans, by the political dimensions of race relations of the period, and by her understanding of the role of language in attaining equality. 

Williamson’s linguistic background fueled her recognition that language is a living and ever-evolving component of the culture in which it is situated, and not a shibboleth that signals class or status. Her research, her presentations at multitudes of academic conferences and meetings, her publications and perhaps most of all, her tireless persistence added to the acceptance of linguistic diversity. Williamson and the linguistic turn in writing instruction remains increasingly important to scholars in the twenty-first century, for many dialects of English can and must co-exist in our democratic, pluralistic society.


Ball, Arnetha F., & Ellis, Pamela. (2008). Identity and the writing of culturally and linguistically diverse students. In Charles Bazerman (Ed.), Handbook of research on writing: history, society, school, individual, text (pp. 409–512). Routledge.

Ball, Arnetha F., & Lardner, Ted. (2005). How we got here. In African American literacies unleashed vernacular English and the composition classroom (pp. 1–32). Southern Illinois University Press.

Crowley, Sharon. (1989). Linguistics and composition instruction: 1950–1980. Written Communication, 6(4), 480–505. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088389006004004 

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1949). The future and function of the private Negro College. Commencement Address, Knoxville College, June 10, 1946. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b198-i043

Gilyard, Keith. (1999). African American contributions to composition studies. College Composition and Communication, 50(4), 626–624. https://doi.org/10.2307/358484

The tradition of white presidents at Black colleges. (1997). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (16), 93. https://doi.org/10.2307/2962918

Williamson, Juanita. V., & Thompson, C. Lamar. (1982). Little-known facts about black/white speech. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 56(2), 86–89. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2014.998601   

Williamson, Juanita. V. (1957) What can we do about it?: The contribution of linguistics to the teaching of English. CLA Journal, 1(1), 23–27.  

Author Bio

Photo of Elizabeth Baddour Elizabeth Baddour, Ph.D. (she/her/hers) is a freelance writer and member of the English Department adjunct faculty at the University of Memphis. Her research interests and publication areas range from medical rhetoric to analyses of the historical, social, and political dimensions of pedagogical trends in writing instruction and modern manifestations of the CCCC 1974 Students’ Right to Their Own Language Resolution.