Educator, suffragist, and Democratic Party worker Charl Ormond Williams was born in Arlington, Tennessee, the third of six children of Crittenden and Minnie Williams. She graduated from Arlington’s “high school on the hill” in 1903 and began teaching at Millington later that year. She served as principal of Bartlett secondary school 1904-6, then taught at Germantown High School. Within three years, she became Germantown’s principal, serving until 1912. She worked two years in the Mathematics Department at West Tennessee State Normal School (now the University of Memphis) before becoming superintendent of Shelby County Schools, a post she held until 1922. She revolutionized the county school system, increasing its funding, adding new school buildings, and doubling school attendance. During her tenure, Shelby County’s schools rose to national prominence.
Williams’s rapid rise in political patronage-ridden Shelby County indicates that her family enjoyed good relations with E. H. Crump’s political machine. Williams became the first Tennessee woman to serve on the Democratic National Committee. She later served as a delegate to the 1920 National Convention and became the first woman in either major party to serve as national vice-chairman. Williams worked closely with the Shelby County delegation in the struggle for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. She remained active in Democratic politics and enjoyed a close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt in later years.
Williams’s talent and experience in partisan politics also served her well in her professional career. In 1921 the National Education Association (NEA) elected her to the presidency, making her the youngest, the first rural, and the first southern woman so elected. The success of her tenure as president immediately led to a salaried position with the NEA as national field secretary. She served with distinction in that office until she retired, traveling thirty to fifty thousand miles per year, lecturing, serving on a variety of boards and committees, and writing numerous articles and two books on educational reform.
In 1935 Williams was elected president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the first educator to hold that post. The College of William and Mary awarded Williams an honorary Phi Beta Kappa membership, and Southwestern (now Rhodes) College granted her an honorary doctorate. Following her 1950 retirement, Williams took a ten-thousand-mile tour of the Soviet Union, parts of the Near East, and Greece. Williams died on January 14, 1969, in Washington. Her papers are held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.
John E. Harkins, Metropolis of the American Nile: Memphis and Shelby County (1982); Mary S. Hoffschwelle, Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community: Reformers, School, and Homes in Tennessee, 1900-1930 (1998)