Norman Williams, the first Black athlete at UR to receive a full scholarship, during his time running track and in another photo, with the 2013 men's cross country team
Above, Norman Williams practices for a 440 relay in 1974 and, at right, gathers with the men's cross country team in 2013.

Norman Williams on breaking barriers and records at UR

February 21, 2023


Norman Williams took a giant leap. The first Black athlete to receive a full UR scholarship made history and set track records that remain today.

“Richmond had a great reputation: a prestigious school, a private school,” said Williams, who grew up in Virginia Beach, became an art major at UR, and graduated in 1974.

Williams was the middle of seven sons, growing up in segregation. At his elementary school, teachers recognized his artistic abilities and invited him to paint seasonal scenes for hallway and classroom displays. It wasn’t until high school that he found track.

“The only reason I went out for track was my brothers told the coach, ‘You know, Norman is pretty fast,’” he said. After joining the team, Williams tried the long jump in a meet and won. He also competed in the triple jump and ran the hurdles, setting two district records his senior year.

“I was an artist at heart, and I really didn’t want to go to school to just be an athlete,” he admitted. “But everybody wanted me to run.”

His family was set to have three brothers in college simultaneously. Other colleges and art schools recruited him, and the University of Richmond offered him a full scholarship that would help the family financially. Plus, Richmond head track and field coach Fred Hardy and assistant coach John “Jack” Reid put Williams at ease. The school seemed like a good fit. 

Williams during his track career at the University of Richmond.

Forging Ahead

When not studying for courses that included art, English literature, math, and biology, Williams spent weekends competing with the track team.

He and his teammates set new records and qualified for nationals, although NCAA eligibility issues precluded Spider participation at the time. In his first year, he sailed 23-6 1/2 feet in the indoor long jump, which is still on the books. He also jumped 25-1 3/4 feet outdoors in Chicago, which remains a Richmond all-time record.

During the Southern Conference Meet his sophomore year, he ran the first leg in the 4x1 relay. The Spiders finished in 40.8 seconds, smashing the existing record. By the time Williams graduated, he set seven records. Two still stand.

Current University of Richmond head men’s cross country and track coach Steve Taylor marveled at what Williams achieved, especially before major advancements in track shoe and facility technology.

In those days, the asphalt runway for the long jump wasn’t long enough, so Williams started in the grass. Each time he jumped, he had to dig out the long jump pit.

“He’s running down and throwing himself into the pit and jumping 25-plus feet,” Taylor said. “We’ve had great athletes in the program that haven’t gotten close to Norman’s school record.”

Retired professor and track coach Bill Jordan, a 1953 UR graduate, taught sports science at UR and remembered Williams well. “He was the best long jumper — what we called the broad jump in those days,” Jordan said. “He was a pioneer.”

Norman Williams, second from right and his wife Deborah, with fellow Spider and life-long friend Samuel Burleigh and his wife Anne. At right, current Co-offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach Winston October, a 1999 graduate.

Connected for Life

When Williams arrived on campus, he was joined by four other Black freshman: Carlton Mack, Stanley Davis, Weldon Edwards, and Sam Burleigh. They remained friends throughout their lives.

“During those times, you have to get a sense of what it was like in the South. Integration had only happened six years ago,” Williams said. “We all stayed in contact. That was our little family away from home.”

He became treasurer for the newly formed Student Organization for Black Awareness, which aimed “to make Black students an important part of campus life.” They organized the first Black History Week at Richmond in February 1974.

As an undergraduate, Williams met comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, basketball great Bill Russell, and Olympic legend Jesse Owens. A local school invited track team co-captains Williams and Jim Detwiler to attend Owens’ speech.

“Afterward we had a chance to walk over, introduce ourselves, sit down, and talk to him,” Williams said. “That’s one thing I cherish.”

Williams embarked on a long, varied career. After graduating from UR, he received a teaching degree from Old Dominion, taught high school, coached track, studied interior design at the University of Maryland, created commercial designs for Marriott, worked with architects, and created art programs for the Pennsylvania State Department of Corrections until retiring a couple years ago. He lives in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Deborah, and recently returned to painting landscapes.

Thinking back to his college days, he said that if he had them to do over again, he would.

“Those four years at Richmond were the best four years of my life,” Williams said. “There were some bad days, but the good days outweighed the bad days. As far as the people I met and the places I’ve been, it couldn’t have been any better.”