Mrs. Erma Lee Williams

Born in 1926 in McGehee, Arkansas, to Eddie O. and Edrena Carson, and reared by her grandmother, Annie B. Gilder, who introduced her to the saving grace of Christ, Erma accepted Christ at a young age.

She moved to Kansas City at age 13 to live with her aunt and uncle, Margaret and Isaiah Bell. She attended Lincoln High School, graduating with honors in 1944 as class valedictorian; she then went on to Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where she and her lifelong friend, the late Jeané Ellison, were the only Black students on campus. Mrs. Williams earned her degree in sociology and psychology from Baker in 1948, graduating with honors. In the following year, on May 8, 1949, she married the love of her life, John Clifford Williams with whom she had four children: John “Jay”, Warner, Margaret, and Ermette.

Mrs. Williams did graduate work in education at Central Missouri State University and the University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City) and was the first person to earn an advanced certificate in Biblical Studies from Calvary Bible College. After completing her education, Mrs. Williams was a social worker at local, public, and private child welfare and service organizations where she worked with first offenders, seniors with special needs and neglected children; she also cared for children whose parents were at work, helping clients develop social and occupational skills and address critical needs while providing them spiritual teaching and guidance.

In 1952, Mrs. Williams was hired as a kindergarten teacher by the Kansas City, Mo., School District, where she would serve for 21 years, teaching at nearly all elementary school levels up to seventh grade. During this time, she was prominently active in professional education organizations—including the Kansas City Education Association, the Missouri State Teachers’ Association, the National Education Association (NEA) and Phi Beta Kappa—providing expertise on issues key to supporting and furthering education professionals, such as standards for teacher education and jointly addressing concerns of urban and rural teachers. Mrs. Williams also served as the NEA’s representative to the World Confederation of Teaching Professionals, chairing its International Relations Committee; this led to her appointment by then Secretary of State William Rogers as a representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A global traveler who treasured experiencing other countries and cultures, Mrs. Williams welcomed an opportunity in 1973 to teach in Kitzingen, Germany, at the U.S. Department of Defense Dependent School, where she taught for five years, spending summers at home in Kansas City. Her wide travels also included visits to Fiji, Hawaii, Japan, Indonesia, Italy, France, and Singapore—to name a few.

Since her earliest days in Kansas City, Mrs. Williams was most at home at her beloved Paseo Baptist Church, worshipping her Lord and Savior with her family, friends, and neighbors. When she wasn’t teaching and leading music in the primary department’s Sunday School class, she was supporting the vacation bible school ministry, leading Boy Scouts clubs, sponsoring the singles ministry and assisting the mission group as they fed bereaved families. Always looking to do more for others in Christ’s name, she originated a monthly program called Facets of Creative Beauty where young people were encouraged to use and grow their skills in the arts.

When she returned from Germany in 1978, the opportunity arose to make her church the center of her working life and unite her love of Jesus Christ with her love of children. As mothers increasingly joined the workforce, the need for childcare facilities rose dramatically. Paseo Baptist’s pastor, the late Dr. Charles Briscoe, decided to create a center at the church to provide care and instruction. To lead it, he turned to a gifted educator and one of the church’s most ardent and active members—Mrs. Williams.

Now called the Erma L. Williams Learning Center, the Paseo Baptist Church Day Care—as it originally was known—opened in 1979 serving 12 students. Over the years, it has served up to 100 children annually, rigorously educating them while also ministering to and counseling their parents. The Learning Center is a model for early learning that builds knowledge, resilience, pride, confidence, and faith in God in the children it serves. This is very much Mrs. Williams’ legacy; she was its director for 38 years, retiring at age 91. In a letter to her, President Bill Clinton said, “your lifelong dedication to others is a blessing and inspiration to all those who know you, especially the generations of students whose futures you’ve helped to shape.”