About 20 years ago, a Flat Hat reporter asked Hulon Willis, Jr., if he would send his then-baby daughter Mica to William & Mary one day. Willis’ father, Hulon Willis, Sr. M.Ed. ’56, had been the first African-American student to enroll at William & Mary, and Willis had followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from the College in 1977.
“Probably up until that time, I never would have agreed to it or even considered it, given some of the things I went through and some of the things I’m sure my father went through when he was here,” said Willis. “But after that, it put it in a different light, and today, [Mica’s] a senior at the College of William & Mary.”
The thing that changed Hulon Willis, Jr.’s mind about potentially sending his daughter to W&M was the creation of an official alumni group for African-American graduates of the College. During W&M’s 2012 Homecoming weekend, the Hulon Willis Association (HWA) celebrated its 20th anniversary by recognizing the strides the organization has made in the last two decades and its ongoing work.
“It’s a great thing,” said Hulon Willis, Jr. “I just can’t say enough about the College and the Alumni Association.”
Networking, socializing, celebrating
According to a description on the Center for Student Diversity’s website, the Hulon Willis Association is “dedicated to encouraging fellowship among alumni, promoting the interests of the Alumni Association and the College and enhancing the quality of life for current African-American students at the College through scholarship opportunities as well as other avenues of involvement.”
Patrick Mamou ‘94, board member and homecoming chair, helped organize the weekend of events for the association.
“In recent years I've been afforded the opportunity to help transform HWA's annual homecoming reception into an interactive weekend of events and activities geared towards engaging the William & Mary base of African-American alumni in particular,” he said in an e-mail. “In this spirit, the 20th anniversary weekend was comprised of several networking events, receptions and celebrations to commemorate this historic occasion.”
Those events began on Friday night with a welcoming social, hosted by the Class of 2002. On Saturday, the association also hosted an alumni-student exchange panel and networking forum. The association added a new event to the weekend this year, a vendor fair featuring alumni entrepreneurs and their businesses.
“As a part of HWA's commitment to engage with and highlight the professional successes of its group members, we are pleased at the response from this well-received initiative and have plans to further broaden opportunities for alumni connections – including networking events with other colleges and universities throughout the region,” said Mamou.
Dozens of William & Mary alumni as well as current students, staff and faculty members and their families also attended the association’s annual meeting and reception, held in the Sadler Center on Saturday.
During that event, the organization honored Alyce Willis, the widow of Hulon Willis, Sr., whom the association was named for. Although she was unable to attend the event, her son Hulon Willis, Jr., and granddaughter, Mica Willis ’13, accepted the honor on her behalf.
“Mrs. Willis was chosen as an honorary guest on behalf of her pioneering husband who led the way for all African-American alumni who followed,” said Mamou.
Also during the reception, Jarrett Walker ’13 spoke about how a scholarship he received from the association had benefitted him, adding that he might not have been able to stay at the university without it. The scholarship was made possible through the Hulon Willis, Sr., Memorial Scholarship Endowment, which provides “financial assistance for students who actively contribute to the multicultural community at William & Mary.”
20 years in the making
Being able to provide scholarships is one of the goals that the founders of the Hulon Willis Association are proud to have seen accomplished in the organization’s 20-year history.
Elizabeth Young ’83 was one of the people who approached the board to officially establish the association, which had been meeting informally for many years. She said that it is important that the association exists “to continue the thoughts of diversity on this campus.”
“It also is important to have the College remind themselves that people of color have contributed greatly to this university to make it what it is,” said Young, who is now the president of the Richmond chapter of society of the alumni. “That’s the main reason that [the Hulon Willis Association] is important and that it continues and that we continue to embrace the old but embark upon the new with younger graduates and continue to give scholarships and recognize the people after us.”
Although Young said she was somewhat impressed with what had been accomplished over the past 20 years, work remains to be done.
“We live in a very difficult world as it relates to diversity and race relations, so anything that we as a community can do to combat that and to make life better for all people at this college, that’s what we’re about,” she said.
Justin Reid ’09, who offered the invocation at the Saturday afternoon meeting, said he decided to attend the event to not only see friends, fraternity brothers and campus mentors, but to also honor the Willis family.
Hulon Willis, Sr. "paved the way for all of us to be here,” said Reid, who now works at the Robert Russa Moton Museum, Virginia’s civil right museum. “I can only imagine what his experiences must have been like.”
Reid’s father actually took karate lessons from Hulon Willis, Sr., who had a black belt.
“Just to think, [they were] an ordinary family, but for William & Mary, they accomplished really extraordinary things by breaking down those walls,” said Reid.
Though much has changed since the Hulon Willis Alumni Association was established, Reid, like Young, said there is still work to do.
“William & Mary has improved so much, but we can always continue to work to make it more accessible for other students of color, work to bring in more financial aid, work to make sure it continues to become more of a welcome place, and I think that Hulon Willis Alumni Association has a very important role in doing all of that stuff.”
A weekend to remember
The association capped off its weekend of Homecoming events on Saturday night with a 20th anniversary soiree at the Alumni House, held in conjunction with the Alumni Association's Saturday Night Bash.
“Despite the impending weather, the weekend was another huge success for HWA and the Alumni Association who diligently assisted in the planning efforts of this momentous occasion,” said Mamou.
The homecoming chair said that association holds deep personal meaning for him.
“As an African-American and first-generation college graduate, it is a privilege to continue the tradition set forth in the mission of HWA upon its founding,” said Mamou.
“The magnitude of perseverance and accomplishments of our beloved alumni group combined with the potential of our collective influence when guided in unison, is an inspirational notion filled with the pride of our history and fueled with passion for where it can transcend in another 20 years and beyond.”