Remembering Carroll B. Williams, Jr., pioneering environmental scientist – Berkeleyside

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Carroll Burns Williams Jr. passed away peacefully on March 1, 2024, while in hospice care near his home in Berkeley. He was 94 years old. Carroll was a pioneer in environmental sciences as the first African American to receive a doctorate in forestry and entomology, the first African American scientist to be hired by the U.S. Forest Service, and among the first African Americans to be a part of the environmental science and forestry faculties at both Yale and UC Berkeley. 
Throughout his career as an African American scientist and academic Carroll encountered many challenges but never allowed them to deter him from his goals, embracing a credo by Thoreau that he often quoted: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
Born in St. Louis in 1929, Carroll was the oldest of five children. During the Great Depression he was often sent to live with his extended relatives in Leavenworth, Kansas, including uncles who served in the 10th Cavalry known as “The Buffalo Soldiers.” This began a lifelong interest in exploring his family history on the western frontier. 
Following the Great Depression his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father opened a popular neighborhood pharmacy. Carroll attended Lindblom High School where he received top grades, played football, and ran track, at one point receiving “starting” tips from Olympic gold medalist Jessie Owens. Carroll graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class and was accepted into the School of Natural Resources at his dream college, the University of Michigan, following in the footsteps of his father who had graduated from Michigan’s College of Pharmacy. During Carroll’s Freshman year he played on the Michigan football team, igniting a passion for the Wolverines that he carried throughout his life.
When the Korean War began Carroll volunteered to serve in the United States Marine Corps. As one of the first African American soldiers to serve in an integrated unit he faced many racial challenges. He persevered and eventually was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Carroll fought in the Battle for “Outpost Vegas,” which was considered one of the bloodiest encounters during the Korean War. Out of three hundred troops or more Carroll was one of approximately eleven soldiers to “walk off the hill” when reinforcements finally arrived. To sustain him through those difficult days, Carroll took comfort in two poems given to him by his parents that he’d tucked in his father’s Bible: “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, and “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Later in life he often recited these poems to inspire others with words that significantly shaped his life and character. 
Following the war, Carroll resumed his studies at the University of Michigan under the G.I. Bill. He was elected to the student council and became a member of the Society of Le Voyageurs, a club “dedicated to the enjoyment of the wonder and mystery of nature.” While doing fieldwork in Corvallis, Oregon for his Ph.D, Carroll met and married his first wife, Marcheta Allen, of St. Paul, Minnesota. The couple returned to Michigan where they gave birth to their first child, Robin Claire. By the time Carroll graduated, he had earned three degrees from the School of Natural Resources (now the School for Environment and Sustainability, or SEAS), a Bachelor of Science in Forestry in 1955, a Master of Forestry in 1957, and a Ph.D in Forestry and Entomology in 1963. He was a pioneer in the field of Environmental Science, challenging the false narrative that African Americans were not interested in the environment. In 2021, the University of Michigan honored his legacy by establishing the Dr. Carroll B. Williams Jr. Fund for Black Excellence, promoting his vision, removing barriers, and encouraging future scholars of color to “confidently follow their dreams.”
After graduating, Carroll was the first African American scientist hired by the U.S. Forest Service. He returned to Corvallis, Oregon where he and Marcheta had their second child, Margaret Myrrhene (“Maiya”). His next assignment relocated the family to Richmond, California, where they had their third child, Carroll Blake Theodore (“Blake”). In 1968, the Forest Service assigned Carroll to New Haven, Connecticut to study the invasive bark beetle, and during this time he joined the faculty at Yale University. In 1973 the Forest Service offered Carroll the option to transfer to Michigan or California for his next assignment. Drawn by his love for California’s majestic redwoods and live oaks Carroll chose the Golden State, and California became his permanent home. 
As both of his parents attended college Carroll valued the importance of a solid education. In 1977 he was elected to the School Board of the Berkeley Unified School District, running a campaign emphasizing leadership, cooperation, and “back to basics,” and in 1979 he was overwhelmingly elected as the Board’s President. After retiring from the Forest Service Carroll joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, teaching courses in forestry and entomology. He also served on the Board of the East Bay Regional Parks and was a member of the National Science Foundation, the Urban League Black Executives Exchange and a youth counselor for the NAACP.
Throughout his life, Carroll was known for his booming “Marine Corp Sergeant voice,” his Boy Scout sense of commitment and his desire to be of service. He was beloved for his sense of humor, his wise counsel and his enthusiasm. He was an active member of the Berkeley Rotary Club and a “familiar face” at the Berkeley YMCA where he frequently worked out into his late 80’s. Carroll was an ardent fan of University of Michigan football and was pleased to see the Wolverines win the 2024 College Championship only weeks before he passed. He also enjoyed deep sea fishing, Star Trek, and Clint Eastwood movies. 
His early interest in tracing his family tree led him to several discoveries: a cousin, Inman “Big Jack” Jackson, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters, an aunt who danced with Josephine Baker, and on his mother’s side, relatives from the Osage tribe. This tribal connection sparked a passion for studying the intersection between Native American and African American history, an interest he instilled in his children and grandchildren. As a part of his ancestral exploration Carroll visited and reconnected with a side of the family that lived in the African American freedom town of Nicodemus, Kansas, established by formerly enslaved people in 1877. 
Carroll was a son to Carroll Burns Williams, Sr. and Maxine Henderson. Preceding him in death are his four siblings, his brother Joseph and sisters Margaret, Anita, and Elva. He is survived by his three children, Robin Claire, Maiya Verrone and Carroll Blake Williams; son-in-law, Patric M. Verrone; stepchildren, Malana, Rasaan, and Irene; and eight natural grandchildren, Ripley, Patric, Deckard, Marianne (“Mars”), Neo, Theodore (“Teddy”), James and Camille. Carroll is also survived by his three ex-wives.
A celebration honoring his life will be held at the beginning of September in Berkeley, California. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages sending donations to a recent endowment established and connected to the Dr. Carroll B. Williams Jr. Fund for Black Excellence at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
If you would like to learn more about the fund, attached is a link to the announcement of the fund’s establishment:, and if you would like to support its endowment, click here.
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