Avis Williams has a long family heritage in the Oxford community, where her ancestors established roots centuries ago. She now works to help establish The Twin Memorials, two permanent structures on the Oxford College and Emory University campuses honoring the slaves whose labor helped build them.
A question was posed by an enthusiastic parent as The Rev. Dr. Avis Williams walked onto the Oxford College campus on a sunny Saturday in May. “Is it really you?” the parent asked. “It depends,” Williams replied, curiously. “On the banner,” he said, pointing to a nearby lamppost. “It looks like you.” Williams looked up, surprised to see her own face, rendered on tall banners lining the path for graduation day, smiling back at her. “I told him, ‘Yes, sir. That’s me.’ But I was so surprised to see that,” Williams said. “I wasn’t expecting them to do that.”
The 2022 commencement speaker was amused by the interaction, but she was also humbled by it. Though she holds four degrees from Emory—an associates from Oxford and a bachelor’s in chemistry, along with a master’s in divinity and a doctorate in ministry from the Candler School of Theology—and carries an extensive resume filled with community service, she always remembers where her life began.
“They named me Avis Williams when I was born, and that’s how I still introduce myself,” she said. “I use my ‘reverend’ and ‘doctor’ titles in professional settings when I need to, but I don’t get hung up on titles. It’s what’s on the inside that matters.”
Williams grew up in the historic Sandhill Community on Walnut Street in Covington. Raised by her grandparents, Joe and Maggie Mae Williams, she was taught from an early age to revere God and pursue education.
“I honor God in everything. He presents these open-door opportunities, and when I give back, God flips it, and whatever it is that I need, He takes care of it.”Avis Williams
“My grandmother is the big hero of my life,” Williams said. “She worked as a custodian for white people in Covington, and she walked wherever she worked. She constantly encouraged me to do all that I could to be the best that I could be and to learn as much as I could. She taught me to stay active and stay involved. She said no matter what to trust God [and] believe God.”
Faith was an integral part of Williams’ upbringing. She was baptized at age 13 at the historic Bethlehem Baptist Church in Covington, and her great-great-great grandfather, Rev. Toney Baker, was the church’s first pastor, serving from 1850–96. Williams eventually followed in his footsteps, as she was ordained in May 2004 after earning a Certificate of Theology from the Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Denominational Theological Center. Now, Williams’ ministry has evolved into a more hands-on endeavor.
“My calling is not to a four-walls kind of church,” she said. “My work is in the field. I’m here when someone needs a hand held while they’re dying, or has a car accident, or needs some food. They call me. I might not be the answer, but I’m often the door that opens to find someone to help them.”
Williams’ grandmother also taught her the value of natural medicine, making teas from herbs and berries to keep the family healthy. She still believes in a holistic approach to good health, connecting recently to a local Muscogee/Creek Native American group.
“They invited me to a stomp dance ceremony where they prayed and danced around the fire. They have this beautiful connection to the earth,” she said. Williams credits the late Dr. Hoyt Oliver for teaching her about environmental theology, a term that describes physical and spiritual worldviews and responsibilities. “I’m a semi-environmentalist,” Williams said. “God gave us this earth, but we should be good stewards of it.”
Williams’ list of accomplishments showcases her commitment to making this world better for current and future generations. In addition to her current role as Bethlehem’s pastor of community transformation, she operated a tutorial and mentoring program at Bethlehem, in collaboration with Oxford and Morehouse colleges; taught a reading and comprehension class for adult learners pursuing their GED; founded and pastored Immanuel Progressive Baptist Church, a church for all peoples that concentrated on health disparities in the African American community and assisted prisoners who had been wrongly accused; served on the Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful Committee, organizing church members to volunteer on community cleanup days; partnered with a local hospice to minister to those with end-of-life diagnoses; served for over 11 years as a pastor of community transformation at Lake Oconee Community Church, organizing a community garden and enrichment programs for students; owned an environmental, health and safety consulting business; served on the Oxford City Council and chaired the Committee on Race, organizing the city’s first ever Black History program; and spoke at the Emory Symposium on Slavery, working to help create scholarship opportunities for descendants of Oxford’s enslaved population.
In addition, Williams hosts the Hour of Power Bible Study, a weekly conference call where dozens gather for uplifting and inspirational studies, and serves as the community liaison for the Putnam County Charter School System, board chair for Oconee Valley Healthcare and executive director of LifeSource—an organization that provides food from the Augusta Food Bank to citizens of the greater Putnam County community.
Williams also stays actively involved with local law enforcement agencies. Along with serving as chaplain with the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, she graduated from the Covington Citizens Police Academy and is a member of the Police Who Care board of directors. After doing a few ride-alongs with law enforcement officers at night, Williams was stunned by what she witnessed. “It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” she said. “I didn’t believe the things that were happening in our community or the amount of drugs out there.” Moreover, Williams attended a national conference on community equity and justice with Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton. The two remain in touch over community affairs. When praised for her dedication to community service, Williams simply sees it as doing what needs to be done.
“I’m not one who brags about stuff,” she said. “I honor God in everything. He presents these open-door opportunities, and when I give back, God flips it, and whatever it is that I need, He takes care of it.”
One of her current give-back projects resides particularly close to her heart. In 2011, Williams organized the Sandhill-Tex Alley Community Reunion. Held every other year, this gathering of two historic African American communities off Washington Street averages between 500 and 1,000 attendees. It is always held on the same Saturday as the CPD’s Fuzz Run, which will be Sept. 10 in 2022.
“Because of the pandemic, we’re going to have three tents in different spaces, instead of one big tent, to help people spread out,” Williams said. “We’re also going to have someone come out to cook and serve us this year.”
Attendees pay a small fee to help keep costs down. The celebration includes a memorial ceremony to honor those who have passed since the last reunion.
Williams is also busy organizing a summer program that encourages teenagers to pursue a college education. Partnering with Oxford College and Albany State University, the Summer Bridge Program allows 30 rising 10th and 11th graders to experience life on campus for a week.
“They live on campus, go on field trips, do community service projects, and at the end, we bring the parents in so that the parents who haven’t been to college can see what it’s like,” Williams said. “These are the kind of doors we have to open so that kids will have the ability to earn enough to live. The way you do that is to learn as much as you can.”
Although she did not spend much of her childhood with her mother, Emogene, Williams was grateful to be her live-in caregiver during her later years. Williams secretly honored her mother when she gave the commencement speech at Oxford.
“I have this T-shirt with my mother’s picture on it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I should wear it, but I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to see it under my robes,’ so when I gave my speech, I had my mother right there near my heart. I wondered what my mother and my grandmother were thinking. Were they proud of me?”
In her speech, Williams encouraged the graduates to always acknowledge the parents, mentors and others whose support brought them to their achievements. In a similar way, she hopes the Twin Memorials monument will bring honor to the enslaved people—many unnamed—whose labor helped build Oxford College.
“They couldn’t go to college, but I did. I want the memorials to be a place of sanctity, a space where we can think about how to build a better world so our young people know who they are and really be seen for who they are,” she said. “That’s the beauty of this rainbow called humanity. That’s God.”