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Shannen Dee Williams

Assistant Professor


Dr. Shannen Dee Williams is a historian of the United States with research specializations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African-American history, black women’s history, civil rights history, African-American religious history, the black Catholic experience, and feminist and womanist thought. She teaches courses in U.S., African-American, women's, religious, and civil rights history at the University of Tennessee.  

Dr. Williams is working on the manuscript for a book entitled, “Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.” Her study draws upon a wide array of sources, including previously sealed church records and over 100 oral history interviews, to unearth the largely hidden history of African-American women religious—the canonical term for Catholic nuns and sisters.  As the first representatives of the African-American community to enter religious life and the progenitors of black Catholic education in the United States, African-American sisters left an un-paralleled record of black resistance to white supremacy in the modern church. Yet, their stories remain uniquely invisible in the annals of history. The longstanding practices of racial segregation and exclusion in female religious life, which kept the national black sister population low and severely marginalized, also remain largely unacknowledged and un-examined. As a consequence, African-Americans sisters are widely believed to be either myths or relatively recent phenomena fueled by the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the explosive growth of the Church in sub-Saharan Africa over the past half century. By recovering black sisters’ suppressed stories in the United States, Subversive Habits challenges and revises widely accepted narratives about the American Catholic experience, the Church’s relationship to the black freedom movement, and white sisters’ moral leadership in racial justice reform. It also shines important light on one of the forgotten battlegrounds of the African-American freedom struggle and moral war for racial equality—the Catholic Church. When published, Subversive Habits will be the first historical survey of African-American sisters and the first to examine their myriad efforts in the fight against racial segregation and exclusion in the church and wider American society.

Prior to joining the UTK faculty, Dr. Williams was the 2013-2014 postdoctoral fellow in African-American studies in the history department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. For the 2012-2013 academic year, she was a lecturer in history department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where she was named “Professor of the Year,” by the Black Affairs Council and the Black Graduate Student Association.

In the spring of 2015, Dr. Williams (with Dr. Brandon Winford) established the Fleming-Morrow Endowment in African-American History through the UT Foundation. Named in honor of Drs. Cynthia Griggs Fleming and John H. Morrow, Jr., two pioneer African-American professors in the UTK College of Arts and Sciences, this endowment (inspired by the university “Journey to the Top 25” campaign) is part of an ongoing initiative to increase the department’s national and international profile as it relates to African-American history and institutionalize black history at the university. It will provide funding for a distinguished lecture series in African-American history and two annual student prizes in African-American and military history. Donations to the Fleming-Morrow Endowment can be made using the following link:  



Ph.D. Rutgers University, 2013.

M.A. University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2006.

B.A. Agnes Scott College, 2004. magna cum laude. Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards and Recognitions

Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer (Appointed to 3-Year Term), 2016-19

Scholar-in-Residence Fellowship, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, 2016-17

Inaugural Woman-to-Woman Honoree for Outstanding Community Leadership and Service, Zeta Phi Beta  Sorority Inc., Nu Zeta Alumnae Chapter, 2016

Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Fellowship for Religion and Ethics, Woodrow Wilson National Foundation, 2011-12

Huggins-Quarles Award, Organization of American Historians, 2011

John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award, American Catholic Historical Association, 2010

Albert J. Beveridge Research Grant, American Historical Association, 2010

Drusilla Dunjee Houston Memorial Award for Best Graduate Essay in History, Association of Black Women Historians, 2008

“Memphis State Eight” Best (First Place) Paper Prize, 9th Annual Graduate Conference in African-American History, University of Memphis, 2007

Tom W. Shick Award for Excellence in the Study of African-American History, UW-Madison, Dept. of Afro-American Studies, 2005

Michael J. Brown History Prize, Awarded to Outstanding Senior Student in History, Agnes Scott College, 2004

Selected Publications

Selected Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles

“‘You Could Do the Irish Jig, But Anything African Was Taboo:’ Black Nuns, Contested Memories, and the 20th-Century Struggle to Desegregate U.S. Religious Life” in the Journal of African American History, 102, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 125-56.

“Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations: Black Nuns, Contested Memories, and the 19th Century Struggle to Desegregate U.S. Religious Life” in the Journal of African American History, 101 (Summer 2016): 231-260.

“The Color of Christ’s Brides” in American Catholic Studies, 127 (Fall 2016): 14-21.


Book Reviews

Review of The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (online edition of America Magazine: The Jesuit Review on April 26, 2017; print edition on May 29, 2017)

Review of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory Among Gullah/Geechee Women by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Journal of African American History, 101 (Fall 2016): 577-580.

Review of Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary and the NAACP, by Yvonne Ryan, Journal of Southern History, LXXXI  (May 2015): 511-12.


Encyclopedia Articles

“The Sisters of Loretto,” “Sister Patricia Haley, SCN,” and “Father Mary Simon (Vincent) Smith,” in The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

“Free African Americans” and “Slavery” in Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2010.

“Rosa Parks” in Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History. Vol. 6. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2010.

Contact Information

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