The Vivid Life and Photographs of June Vanleer Williams

June Vanleer Williams was born on June 24, 1921, in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the first African American woman to be in a Stanford University Journalism fellowship program. She was part of the program from 1969 to 1970. As a journalist, she worked at the Cleveland Call & Post and the Cleveland Gazette.

She was also a playwright and actress. She wrote at least four plays: The Face of Job, A Bit of Almsgiving, The Eyes of the Lofty, and The Meek Won’t Inherit S#.*!!. Williams acted in plays and was involved in Hollywood productions. Two notable mentions are that she starred in the Broadway play Don’t Play Us Cheap, and she was the casting director for the 1974 movie Claudine, starring James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll.

Photo of June Vanleer Williams from the June Vanleer Williams papers at the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center
June Vanleer Williams used the stage name “Jay Vanleer” as an actress. June Vanleer Williams papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Her papers contain professional and personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, drafts of her plays, notes from her time as a casting director, a plaque, and a trophy. Out of all of ten boxes of material the most fascinating pieces are the photographs. This collection has an extensive number of photographs ranging from professional to promotional to personal.

The professional photographs include head shots for casting roles in Claudine. These head shots are both men and women, and the ages range from 5-65 years old. All of these photographs are undated, but they are suspected to be from around the 1960s and 1970s. They are interesting because they show some of the fashion sense of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the plays and movies that all these aspiring actors starred in.

Other promotional photographs are from the 1975 film Mahogany, starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Andrew Perkins. The context of the photographs is unknown because June Vanleer Williams was not involved in the film’s production nor did she act in the film. Despite the mystery behind the photos, they are nice promotional stills from the movie and behind the scenes. The photographs allow for a close-up look at one of Diana Ross’s most iconic movie roles and tell the story without giving away too much. For those who haven’t seen the movie, these stills allow for a great curiosity about it.

Publicity photograph of Diana Ross and Anthony Perkins from the 1975 film Mahogany. June Vanleer Williams papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
In the film Mahogany, Diana Ross plays a struggling fashion design student who rises to become a popular fashion designer in Rome. One of her co-stars is Anthony Perkins who plays a fashion photographer who reinvents her as “Mahogany” and with whom she shares an uneasy relationship. June Vanleer Williams papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Finally, the personal photographs range from the early 1900s to the 1970s or 1980s and tell about her life. There are photographs of her father’s family, such as his adopted sister as a little girl. There are also photographs of June Vanleer Williams in various stages of her life. The bulk of the photos are from 1930 to 1984. One of the scrapbooks is full of the pictures, specifically from a special dinner for those involved in Karamu House. Karamu House is the oldest African American theater in the United States. Williams was very involved in Karamu House throughout her life. Along with the photographs there is also correspondence between Williams and the founders of the theater.

All of the compelling materials in June Vanleer Williams’ papers cannot be described in one short blog post, so contact the American Heritage Center at ahcref@uwyo.edu if you would like to learn more about this influential lady!

– Post by Anne-Marie Stratton, AHC Carlson Intern

#alwaysarchiving

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