A Hobby That Gives Back: How One Man’s Hobby Teaches the Community about Black History

By: Carly Kwiecien Last Updated: February 25, 2015

Michigan City resident Allen Williams, a longtime contributor to the community has a past time that brings not only himself joy and satisfaction, but also educates and informs an entire community as well. Williams enjoys educating students and residents by setting up displays during the month of February to commemorate Black History Month.

He and his wife started displaying their collection of black history memorabilia about twelve years ago, first displaying it at the Michigan City Public Library. Since their collection is so extensive, they even had enough for a few mobile displays, too.

Once he started mentoring at the Safe Harbor Program, Williams was given the opportunity to set up his display at the Mullen Center where the Safe Harbor Program takes place.

This multifaceted display travels through history before Christopher Columbus ventured to America. It then shifts its focus to African history that exemplifies strong family structure, work ethic, traditions and cultural values in African tribes.

It highlights specific events and individuals in African American history all over the world. This month, there are different collections that are brought in and scattered throughout the Mullen Center. Some of his collections include newspapers, books, magazines, hats and Williams’s most prideful collection: stamps.

“I've been collecting stamps that feature African Americans over the years. In 1984, the United States Postal Service starting issuing the Black Heritage Stamp. Although I do not have all of them, I have made it my mission to find as many as I can to make my collection even more widespread,” Williams said.

He has an entire wall dedicated to JET magazine’s feature known as “This Week in Black History.” The magazine is a prominently African American news outlet that was used as a source of news for African Americans, since traditional newspapers were not publishing stories that involved their ethnicity.

He also has displays on “100 Documents that Shaped Our Nation,” and of those 100, 21 of them are directly related to African Americans.

At the Mullen Center, there are also four viewing areas where there are DVDs, VHSs and record players where one may listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s original speeches on an album.

There is also a room dedicated solely to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

There is also an activity room set up for the children in the Safe Harbor Program to learn about Black History Month through trivia games, board games and puzzles. All of these components help educate children on African American background through an alternative perspective.

Williams has other displays honoring Barack Obama, Jackie Robinson, other athletes, scientists, inventors, civil rights leaders, poets and many more.

Although Williams has brought in ninety-five percent of the items on display, there have been other contributions from students in the program and coworkers who have brought personal items from home.

His collection started as a hobby and has grown tremendously over the years.

“I started it by simply coming across things that caught my attention. I have this historical nugget in my brain that drew me to these objects. I figured if it is interesting to me, it is probably interesting to other people, too,” Williams said.

Until this exhibit at the Mullen Center, he has not had the opportunity to put as much content out for others to view.

“By putting out these displays, I am trying to elevate consciousness. I bet everyone could learn a little something by them, and that makes it all the worthwhile,” Williams said.

He does not just focus on those who have played direct roles in civil rights movements, but rather focuses on what the individuals have done in addition to what they are most famous for.

The purpose of the displays is to communicate to everyone the role that was played in the history by African Americans because much of history learned in school does not cover much history of alternative races.

“We want to provide information for the public and through information, people can become more appreciative of others and more appreciative of themselves. When you learn you are descendants of a proud, prosperous people, you feel good about yourself. If you know that people have endured indignations, discriminations, and segregation, but they were able to overcome it, it gives you hope that you can do the same thing, regardless of what your situation is,” Williams said.

This current collection of his is not the only one, though.

Over the last 40 years, Williams has found videos, newsletters and photographs from his time at Ball State University and has taken his memorabilia to class reunions. Last August, his collection that is called “Chronicling the Black Student Experience at Ball State,” was honored for his documentation of the activities of members of the black student life and black alumni communities. His online collection might be found at http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/search/collection/WllmsAlln.

This is not his only involvement with Ball State. He is the former president of the Alumni Council and also previously worked with the Black Alumni Constituent Society Board of Directors. Williams currently sits on a few boards and works with the school’s Multicultural Center and Black Alumni Group.

“This is just something I feel like I can give back. Since I've been there and I've seen things that were good, I can help by promoting the university and help students get accepted,” Williams said.

For the past 39 years, Williams has been married to his wife, Cenora. Together, they have two sons: Austin and Anthony. Both have become extremely successful in their career fields and have families of their own.

Williams has always had a strong bond with his family, present and past. He seeks strong inspiration from his mother, who was always positive and always tried to improve things in his life.

“I try to instill the same values into my kids. My wife and I did not send our kids, but we took our kids. We wanted to be the major influence in their lives so we would go listen, see and be present in their lives. We would give them the opportunity for them to form their own opinions, and we knew where they always were. My mom was the same way and it solidified our bond,” Williams said.

His secondary influence in his life was Charles Westcott, the director of Elite Youth Center.

“He was always encouraging and supporting me. Whenever I was at the Youth Center, I could be myself and there were always people there to support and listen to you,” Williams said.

Williams is currently in the process of writing a book about Westcott.

“A long time ago, Westcott told me ‘All I did was what I was supposed to do.’ He counseled and he coached and did so much for everyone, and when you think of his words, that is the definition of community,” Williams said.

Through his service in Michigan City, he has donated much more than collections of memorabilia. He has taught children the importance of communication, responsibility, honesty and the gift of giving.

“There is something we can all do to improve this world, but it takes commitment, the proper attitude, hard work and perseverance,” Williams said. “Tomorrow is a better day. Tomorrow is a different opportunity for you to become a better person, to do something different or to help someone in need.”