Photos by Amber Ford
Charles “Chuck” V. Williams signing “Black Lives Matter”
The last time Charles “Chuck” V. Williams was pulled over by a police officer, he did what he always does: he didn’t speak a word. Instead, he signs the simple 3-sign phrase “I am deaf.” The rest, he says, is up to the officer. Even though he has some lip reading comprehension and has the ability to speak, he will often refuse to respond to verbal or even written commands.
As a Black man, the risks of this approach are many. As a Black disabled man, they are multiplied exponentially. But for Williams, risks like these are ones he’s taken his entire life—all 90 years of it—with the purpose of advocating for the Black Deaf community at large. Williams, who is profoundly deaf, explains that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, police officers are required to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people in their first language—in this case, American Sign Language. So, Williams will sit silently and wait for an in-person or video-relay interpreter to be provided.
“The police officer looks at me and thinks I'm dumb, and thinks I can’t communicate,” says Williams. “Well, back at you, because I want police officers to face that and see how they have to communicate with me.”
He says the high-profile police brutality cases that are currently dominating the news are no different from the injustices he’s been battling on behalf of the deaf community for over seven decades.
“In the deaf world, this is nothing new for us. Policemen have not learned, they haven't been educated how to deal with deaf people. George Floyd said ‘I can't breathe.’ Well, I can’t sign. They handcuff us behind our backs and we can’t communicate,” says Williams, who explains that for a deaf person, a simple “hands on the wheel” command is equal to shoving a gag in their mouth—without their hands they can’t communicate. Shining a flashlight in a deaf person’s eyes is taking away the one sense—vision—they need to comprehend anything that is being said to them.
Williams, a lifelong Cleveland resident and an iconic leader and activist within the Black Deaf community, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. For he and his family, it was an opportunity to look back on an exceptional life, as well as give back to the community that has been Williams’ focus for nearly a century. On March 25, the family publicly announced the formation of the Charles V. Williams Scholarship Fund, which provides financial support for tuition for Black deaf or hard of hearing students seeking a degree from Gallaudet University, with preference given to Black Deaf students from Ohio. Williams' own educational journey was transformative—if often unjust. It launched him into a lifetime of activism in which he personally fought for (and won) significant parts of the policy and protection disabled Americans benefit from today.
Photos by Amber Ford
Charles “Chuck” V. Williams signing “I am deaf and proud.”
Williams still vividly remembers the day in 6th grade when his teacher walked up to his desk and smacked him over the head. He had his nose buried in his textbook and he didn’t hear her approach his desk, so the sting was mingled with shock. The offense? She thought Williams was ignoring her.
The year was 1943, and Williams was a student at Case Woodland Elementary school in Cleveland. The incident resulted in Williams’ mother, Irene, marching right into the school demanding to meet with the teacher. Williams remembers the two women speaking in the hallway, but not being able to discern what was being said. After the meeting, both his mother and teacher walked Williams straight over to the nearby Alexander Graham Bell School for the Deaf on East 55th and Quincy Avenue to have his hearing tested. As they passed by the playground, Williams spotted his brother Ted happily signing with his friends. Ted had lost his hearing after contracting German measles as a toddler.
The reason behind Williams’ hearing impairment was a mystery—doctors simply diagnosed him with a sensori-neural loss—but the test revealed a loss of 90%. He was 12 years old. “They gave me hearing aids—the old fashioned ones you wore around your neck and in your pocket. They drove me crazy,” recalls Williams. He subsequently enrolled in the Alexander Graham Bell School himself, where the practice at the time was to encourage lipreading and speaking. Sign language was not part of the instruction. (Sign language was not permitted in Ohio schools until 1977 when P.L. 94-142 was passed into law, guaranteeing a “free and appropriate public education to each child with a disability.”) The signs his brothers and his friends used were considered “home signs,” a colloquial form of communication they used with each other, but that would result in getting their hands smacked if they were caught doing it in the classroom. “My dad would be so doggone disgusted (to see us signing). He’d force me to use the hearing aids, and he made me learn to lip read. And I just had to put up with it.” Williams’ parents, especially his father, Theodore, a respected Cleveland judge, held the line. Even his brother, older and preoccupied with his friends, would brush him off when he asked what he was signing. “He’d always say ‘I’ll tell you later.’”
Wililams was frustrated that no one would teach him to sign and felt left out socially, so when he learned about the Ohio School for the Deaf in Columbus—a residential institution that allowed sign language instruction for students who were termed "oral failures"—he imagined a place where he would finally fit in.
“I told my parents about it and they said “No, no, no—you can’t go there,” says Williams. So, he wrote a letter to the school on his own, and was admitted for the 10th grade.
Charles “Chuck” V. Williams, fourth from top right, and the Ohio School for the Deaf football team.
Those first months felt like he was dropped into another country and couldn’t speak the language. “I went to class and the teachers were all signing. I didn’t understand it, I was so frustrated,” recalls Williams. “But I am using my eyes and trying to take in everything I can, and being really patient, and after about three months of this, I started being able to communicate.” Socially, he blossomed, joining the basketball and football teams, and forming more friendships. “I felt like I was fully Deaf now. I accepted myself for who I was.”
But just when he felt that he had found a place he belonged, he discovered there was something that still kept him from being fully embraced and respected within his new-found Deaf community—the color of his skin. The school was almost entirely white, and Williams remembers the look of shock on his classmates faces when he moved into the dorm. “They were like ‘Whoa! he’s Black! Then they would tell me ‘My mom and dad said I shouldn’t be socializing with Black kids.’”
Williams was able to brush off the countless experiences with racism as a nagging annoyance until one day, when they would dramatically change the course of his life. It was 1950, just months before he was set to graduate. Word was going around campus that the superintendent's car had been vandalized. Not only did Williams witness the occurrence from a distance, but a few of Williams’ white classmates had confided in him that they were the culprits. They were panicking, “Please don't tell them,” Williams says they begged of him. “Our parents are going to be really angry with us. Don’t rat us out.”
So when Williams was called into the office and asked who vandalized the car, he replied that he didn’t know. “And they told me, ‘If you won't tell us who the kids are, you need to pack your things and go home right now.’” He claims a mix of youthful ignorance and loyalty, but he didn’t tell.
“They made me pack up and leave right away. It was nighttime—they drove me straight to the Greyhound bus station.” He remembers the bewildered expressions on his parents’ faces when he walked through the door, and when he explained what had happened. “My parents were so doggone upset.”
Despite his parents' best efforts—they drove the two hours back out to Columbus to try and “hash things out” with the administration—the school wouldn’t readmit him. “There were no ifs, ands, or buts...they kicked my butt out of school.”
Williams recounts the event with a chuckle, but it’s clear that 70-plus years hasn’t erased the injustice.
“I was ready to graduate in two months. And I was very disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity to get a high school diploma and graduate,” says Williams. “I was afraid when kids would ask me, ‘Well, what high school did you graduate from?’ I didn't know what to say….I had to swallow it and live with it.”
That would be one of the last times Williams would “swallow it and live with it.”
Back home and temporarily adrift, Williams often ran errands for his mother between home and his father’s office at the downtown courthouse. His foray into activism happened organically—after a lifetime of hanging around the local courthouses with his dad, he had a familiarity with the people and the processes that his other Black Deaf friends did not. He was friendly with the other lawyers and judges. Soon he found himself acting as a liaison between the Deaf and hearing worlds. Word got around that Williams could help other Deaf people navigate the court system—anything from paying parking tickets to communicating with a judge. “Deaf people would come to my house and ask for help. And I would be willing to go down there to the courthouse with them and kind of mediate between the lawyers and these Deaf people—just helping them solve their problems,” says Williams, who still had partial hearing back then and remembers instances of trailing lawyers into the restroom to plead the cases of his Deaf friends.
Not all his advocacy was in the legal arena—or even legal, for that matter. Williams also became known as “that Black Deaf guy who could get you a driver’s license.”
He explains that most of his Black Deaf friends had come to Cleveland from the South and faced additional challenges navigating the hearing world. Most hadn’t completed much schooling (some schools for the Deaf were still segregated in the south until 1978, and the education for Black Deaf children was often abysmal), had difficulty reading and writing, and used a southern style of sign language not understood by local interpreters.
Williams, with wife Patricia Cangelosi Williams and their daughters, Jessa and Carla.
“At the time, driver’s licenses didn’t have pictures on them. So I would get their info and go over to the West Side, like to Lakewood, and I’d take the test and say that I was that person and get the driver’s license for them.” Many of Williams' stories from this time end the same way—with a good-natured chuckle and the disclaimer, “You gotta remember, I was a kid at the time.”
A natural helper, his early activism was shaped by a recognition of his privileges—he was educated and came from a respected family—so he did everything from write letters on behalf of Deaf people to potential employers to mediating for them in courts and police stations. “I loved to advocate and help Black Deaf people, especially in the legal arena. That was my favorite thing to do.”
It was Williams’ dream to become a lawyer like his father, but with no high school diploma—and the lived reality of Black Deaf people at the time—it wasn’t possible. “In the early 1950s, I tried to apply to Gallaudet University, the only four-year college for deaf and hard of hearing students in the United States, and was told they weren’t admitting Black students,” says Williams. Instead, he got a job at the Cuyahoga County engineer's Department, where he worked for 35 years.
But his day job didn’t keep him from his activism. He was an influential campaigner for his good friend Carl Stokes, and helped him become the first Black mayor of Cleveland in 1967. “The Stokes brothers—Carl and Lou—we grew up in the projects together. I lived across the street,” says Williams, who remembers the young brothers as avid readers. He also worked on the campaign for Ohio governor Richard Celeste. He says both Stokes and Celeste offered him jobs after their wins, which he ultimately turned down. “Dick asked me to move to Columbus. I said no way, I am a Clevelander, I'm going to stay, but thanks, anyway.”
Plus, something about fighting for change from the outside suited him. In 1980, he turned his sights to the national political stage. Through his involvement in local politics, he had come to some disheartening conclusions. “A lot of Deaf people did not vote,” says Williams, pointing out that the political process was not accessible to them at the time—there were no interpreters at debates to conventions or accessible options at the voting booth.
In 1980, the Democratic National Convention was happening in Detroit, Michigan. “And I was very personally upset that they did not provide ASL interpreters on the platform,” says Williams. “I had no way of finding out what was happening at the convention, and I couldn't participate.” So, he sued the federal government. In August of that year, Williams arrived in D.C. preparing to file a class action suit against the National Democratic and Republican Conventions for their refusal to televise a Sign Language interpreter for linguistic accessibility throughout the proceedings.
Williams and his lawyer, Jeffrey Friedman, who was also disabled and in a wheelchair, set up a de-facto office inside the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, a junior high on the campus of Gallaudet University.
“It was closed that time because it was summertime. But I knew Carl Kirchner, who was the principal, and he connected me with Sharon Carter who drew up some briefs to be filed in court,” remembers Williams.
“I saw him as the ‘David’ who courageously went after the country’s political ‘Goliaths’ on behalf of deaf voters,” says Dr. Ernest E. Hairston, the first Black deaf person to earn a Ph.D. in Special Education Administration from Gallaudet University, and who went on to hold senior roles in the U.S. Department of Education for three decades and co-author the book Black and Deaf in America, Are We That Different?, which also featured Williams.
Caption, left to right: Glenn Anderson, Charles Williams, Ernie Hairston, and Linwood Smith. Image courtesy of Charles Williams.
The biblical reference rang true for other reasons, as well—despite asking some of the larger national Deaf organizations, such as the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) for help, he was on his own. Williams says the NAD didn’t want to risk the generous federal funding they received by being named in a federal case.
On the day of the trial “I was wetting my pants to be honest with you, I was so nervous. In the courtroom, there was a whole cadre of young lawyers for Ted Kennedy, who was running at the time, and for Gerald Ford. I looked over at all of these lawyers, and thought ‘You did this all because of me? Me? This one little Black Deaf guy here?’”
The hearing didn’t go Williams’ way—the judge said that whether or not to have televised interpreters was an FCC issue, and he was picking the wrong fight. But after the hearing was over, “a few of Ted Kennedy's attorneys came over to talk with my lawyer, and insisted that they would be sure to take care of this business on TV with interpreters.” And they did.
“We were partially victorious because they did have interpreters on the platform,” says Williams. “Kennedy even emailed me a copy of the remarks he planned to give at the convention, and an autographed picture of himself. I was happy that maybe this victory would start things off.”
And as he recounts watching the most recent Democratic National Convention in 2020, he’s still in awe of all he saw. “We saw disabled people represented. We could watch it with a live interpreter on YouTube. They were phenomenal. These interpreters that they had, they were out of this world. I couldn't believe it. In my time, that wasn't the case.” But in large part thanks to Williams, it is now.
While he was in D.C., Williams connected with some local Black Deaf friends and activists who, like himself, had long felt marginalized within the larger Deaf organizations, specifically the NAD, which held large annual conferences for members. The NAD prohibited Black membership for 40 years until 1965, a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And even then, the participation of Black members was extremely limited. Out of the 4,000 people who attended their annual conference in 1980, only 25 were Black and Deaf. In response, a Black Caucus was formed at that year’s event to call out the NAD's refusal to address the concerns of the Black Deaf community, as well as the lack of representation within the delegates of the NAD. Williams recalls “And we decided, because our concerns were not addressed, we were going to start our own organization.” So, during his time in D.C. that year, Williams was invited to work with a local Black Deaf committee to plan a mini conference for and about the Black Deaf experience.
Less than a year later, in June of 1981, nearly 100 Black Deaf people gathered at Howard University for the very first Black Deaf Conference. Williams organized a chartered bus from Cleveland to D.C. for the event. It was something of a test run for a national organization centering Black Deaf people. “The 1981 Black Deaf Advocates Conference was important on two counts: it marked the first time Black deaf people came together to discuss issues important to them, and it became the model for future Black deaf conferences,” says Dr. Hairston, who helped plan that inaugural event as well.
The two-day conference featured workshops on the topics of education, family, social services, health and mental health, employment, and interpreting. The National Black Deaf Advocates—founded by Lottie Crook, Ernest Hairston, Williard Shorter, Linwood Smith, Elizabeth “Ann” Wilson, and Charles “Chuck” V. Williams—has hosted a conference every year since (with the exception of 2020, due to COVID-19), and now has approximately 38 chapters across the country. The 30th National Black Deaf Advocates Conference will be held in Birmingham, Alabama in Summer 2021.
Williams, holding his daughter Carla, and next to Plain Dealer reporter Joe Frolik, on the way to the 1983 National Black Deaf Advocates conference in Philadelphia, PA.
Needless to say, the '80s were a busy time for Williams. He met and married Patricia Cangelosi, a certified sign language interpreter, in September of 1981. The following year, the NDBA held their first official national conference, themed “Black Deaf Strength Through Awareness.” It took place in Cleveland, Ohio at Stouffer's Inn on the Square and drew more than 300 participants.
In addition to birthing a brand new advocacy organization, in 1983, Williams and his wife welcomed their first child, a daughter named Carla. Two years later, her sister, Jessa was born. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s Williams would juggle his advocacy work with the responsibilities of being a devoted stay-at-home dad, while his wife co-founded a sign language interpreting business, Deaf Services of Cleveland.
“My daughters at that time were early elementary school age, and I became Mister Mom, so I cooked while my wife went out to work,” Williams remembers fondly. But his parental duties didn’t diminish his reputation as a firebrand who would fight for the Black deaf community at every opportunity.
In 1987, Williams served as the first deaf juror in Ohio. He recalls getting the summons in the mail. “I showed it to my dad, and he said, ‘Oh, no, no, they’ll excuse you. You can’t serve on the jury because you’re deaf.’” One would think that by now his father would know better.
Williams went to meet with the judge assigned to the case. “And he kind of hemmed and hawed,” recalls Williams. “I had to show this judge proof. I had to do some research and show them that there were other deaf jurors that had served in the United States.” He presented an example in Philadelphia, where a deaf juror had served.
This time, the judge decided in Williams’ favor, allowing him to serve. The trial wouldn’t be his last—in subsequent trials he was even voted to serve as foreman by his fellow jurors.
Friends and colleagues recall countless times he spoke up on their behalf. Evon Black, the former president of the National Black Deaf Advocates, and the Associate Director of Recruitment in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Gallaudet University, still clearly recalls what happened when she was initially passed over for a job at Gallaudet three decades ago.
“When Chuck learned that I did not get the job at Gallaudet admissions office in 1989, he walked up to the HR office at the university: ‘What happened to Evon Black?’ He literally hollered at people, ‘Don't you dare tell me that Black Deaf people are not good enough to get the job in the Admissions office,’” says Black. “He was the Black Deaf Moses who was ready to beat the Pharaoh king with his tongues. Every word that came out of his mouth was enough to knock people down.”
Then, in 1995, Williams got an unexpected phone call. It was the superintendent from the Ohio School for the Deaf—the same institution that had unjustly expelled him sent him home on a middle-of-the-night Greyhound bus nearly four decades earlier.
“They asked me to come and speak at the graduation ceremony,” says Williams. ““I was really surprised.”
While he had mixed emotions about the invitation to give the keynote address, he ultimately saw it as good for the Black Deaf community at large, so he graciously accepted. When the day came, he and his wife drove to Columbus for the day, leaving their daughters with a close family friend in Cleveland.
The superintendent gave Williams a cap and gown to wear while up on stage. And as he was giving his speech he spotted some familiar faces in the audience.
“I saw my two daughters,” he says, “And I started crying, and I couldn't figure out why they had come.” He found out moments later, when the superintendent joined Williams on stage to present him—45 years later—with his high school diploma.
It would seem, after all the time that had passed, the formality of finishing high school would be purely symbolic. But instead, like so many recent high school graduates, Williams headed off to college. Baldwin Wallace College came calling first, asking Williams to come on as an adjunct professor of American Sign Language. That same year he was asked by Gallaudet University to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees.
For Williams, who had fought for the underrepresented his entire life, this wasn’t just another position to add to his resume. His spot on the board at a venerated institution like Gallaudet was yet another opportunity to speak truth to power. “It wasn't easy for them, I think, because, you know, I showed my attitude. I told them outright—straight, very blunt. I was not going to accept anything secondhand for Black Deaf students.
He called out unequal treatment anytime he saw it—he demanded to know why Black students would get suspended for “smoking a little pot” or other minor infractions, while their white peers were let off. For Williams, more than 50 years may have passed since his own unjust punishment at the Ohio School For The Deaf, but it was clear many of the same inequities persisted.
Williams also advocated for other marginalized students. When a group of deaf Indigenous students asked the board for permission to light fires on campus for their spiritual services, Williams fought on their behalf. “I spoke up about that. I said, `We need to let them have their ability to have religious freedom and pray, in their ways that they are used to, and culturally accept what they are asking.”
Denied the opportunity to attend college as a young man, Williams ended up spending over a quarter of his life on college campuses. He taught American Sign Language at Baldwin Wallace College for 24 years, and then Cleveland State University up until his retirement in 2019. And after serving 13 years as a member of the Board of Trustees for Gallaudet University, he was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2008, officially making him Dr. Charles V. Williams.
“I didn't go to college, but here I am having been elected and served for 13 years. Back then, I couldn't get in, couldn’t get a degree,” says Williams.
Which is why on March 25, 2021, on the day Williams’ 90th birthday, his family announced the formation of the Charles V. Williams Scholarship Fund. The funds are earmarked for Black and deaf or hard of hearing students seeking a degree from Gallaudet University, with preference given to applicants from Ohio. “I’m so grateful to have this fund set up in my name,” says Williams. “I’m so thankful for the support I’ve received from the Deaf community through the years. Thankful for Dr. Ernest Hairston, Dr. Glen Anderson, Dr. Robert Davila, Dr. Carolyn Mccaskill and Dr. I. King Jordan, the first Deaf president of Gallaudet, and the former and present Board of Trustees at Gallaudet.”
The gratitude goes both ways. “Chuck is the Deaf Mandela, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X," says Evon Black, who says she’s often wondered “Where would I be if he didn't care and fight for me?"
For Williams, he insists that his life’s worth of remarkable activism is just part of who he is. “I've always been a fighter, and I'm not afraid to speak up. I am very proud to be deaf.”
Pitch in to the Charles V. Williams Scholarship Fund, which provides financial support for tuition for Black deaf or hard of hearing students seeking a degree from Gallaudet University, with preference given to applicants from Ohio. The family hopes to raise at least $25,000 for the inaugural fund.
This story was produced in partnership with Represent Collaborative
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