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Fred Williamson, civil rights and Historic preservation leader, R.I.P.

September 27, 2010

Frederick C. Williamson, Chairman of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission and the longest serving State Historic Preservation Officer in the nation, died on Sunday, September 26, 2010 at age 95.

Fred Williamson was a pioneer in the preservation movement in America; the preservation movement in Rhode Island and the United States can be followed throughout Mr. Williamson s career.

After a career as a civilian manager at the U.S. Navy Quonsett Point facility and holding leadership roles in the Rhode Island civil rights movement, in 1969 Governor Frank Licht appointed Fred to head the RI Department of Community Affairs (DCA) (a cabinet level position) and designated him as state historic preservation officer (SHPO).  Serving in these dual capacities, he was effective in developing a high level of preservation professionalism in public administration and in promoting state and local government partnerships.  As director of a department that had responsibility for planning and coordinating technical assistance in the economic and social development of the state, he was able to ensure the use of historic preservation in a variety of programs that impact the social, cultural and historic character of Rhode Island.
After his retirement as a member of the Governor s Cabinet in 1986, Mr. Williamson continued to serve as SHPO in a volunteer capacity, and in 1995 he was elected chairman of the RI Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, upon the retirement of the Commission’s first chair, Antoinette F. Downing.

When he was appointed SHPO in 1969, the national historic preservation program was very new, and the role of the State Historic Preservation Officer was largely undefined.  Working closely with Antoinette F.
Downing, Fred created the RI state historic preservation office as an independent state agency with state-legislated mandates (paralleling the federal program) for a state register of historic places, state project review regulations, state rehabilitation tax credits and grants.  As a superb public administrator and cabinet-level state official from 1969 to 1986, Fred successfully introduced an idea which seemed radical at the time: that historic preservation could be a regular and routine part of the broader processes of state government.

Fred’s career had a national impact on historic preservation.  He was been both role model and mentor on the art of operating historic preservation programs, beginning at a time when preservationists were much more likely to understand architectural history than public administration.  He helped to create the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, the professional association of state officials who carry out the National Historic Preservation programs on behalf the Secretary of the Interior, and he served as President of the national organization from 1977-1979.  He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a member of the U. S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.  In 1998, Fred received the nation’s top honor for historic preservation, the Louise DuPont Crowinshield Award, presented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Fred demanded excellence in his own work and in the work of others.  As a public official, he was not satisfied with administering the status quo, and he was an effective advocate for reform and improvement in all of his varied program responsibilities.  He often advised: “Aim for the stars, and at least you may reach the tops of the trees.”  In fact, Fred’s many accomplishments have matched his lofty goals.

Historic preservation was ennobled by association with Fred’s indefatigable service to the larger community.  For over three decades, Fred exposed a wide and diverse world to the message of historic preservation, and he brought home to the preservation movement the urgent need for preservation to be part of the solution to larger public issues such as housing, community development, and tolerance among fellow citizens.  As a President of the Rhode Island Chapter of the NAACP, a founder and past-President of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and as a contributing author to the book African American Historic Places (published by the National Park Service), Fred was an eloquent national voice for recognizing that America’s heritage is enriched when its full and inclusive story is told.  The present success of the historic preservation movement in Rhode Island and in the United States can be traced in the career and many contributions of Frederick C. Williamson.

Arrangements for services will be announced in the Providence Journal.

For more information about RIHPHC programs, please visit our web site at

Edward F. Sanderson, Executive Director
RI Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission The Old State House 150 Benefit Street Providence, RI  02903 Tel 401-222-4130  Fax 401-222-2968

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