The Coolest Black Family in America, No. 19: The Hunter/Williamses

The Coolest Black Family in America, No. 19: The Hunter/Williamses

Caroline Hunter and Ken WIlliams took on Polariod over apartheid, and their struggle for justice only strengthened their relationship

June 24, 2013


The illustrious history of Caroline Hunter’s selfless work as a human rights activist is deeply interwoven with a moving tale of Black love—love for her community, people of African descent in the diaspora, her daughter Lisette and her late husband, photographer, activist and humanitarian Ken Williams. Hunter’s inherent sense of responsibility for improving the lives of others first led her to cross paths in the 1970s with Ken, with whom she’d wage an historical anti-apartheid boycott campaign against their employer, Polaroid, for doing business with South Africa’s oppressive government.

Growing up in the segregated South in New Orleans, Caroline’s mother instilled in her very early the concept of giving back. “You did something for other people on a regular basis voluntarily,” says Caroline. This came naturally for her throughout her life.

When her classmate at Xavier University (the historically Black Catholic University) got pregnant and the school threatened to keep her from graduating, Caroline organized members of her senior class in a walkout to protest the school’s conservative ruling. “She needed that diploma more than any of us did,” says Caroline. The chemistry major’s protest was successful, the school relented, and the mom-to-be received her diploma. “This was something I had to do. I didn’t see organizing this protest as anything risqué.

“Ken and I first met when we were paired by Polaroid to go around Boston public schools to talk to students about the importance of education,” Caroline recalls. She worked as a chemist at the Cambridge-based company while her colleague Ken was a staff photographer. “We were the only volunteers who questioned the state of these public schools.”

How come the clocks weren’t working? Why was the teacher reading a newspaper instead of teaching? And how come students were wearing their coats in a cold classroom? Those were some of the weighty questions Ken and Caroline posed.We were told not to worry about that and just to motivate the kids, but motivation is not a vacuum. How can it work in this environment? We both knew something was very wrong.” Caroline and Ken’s uneasiness with the deplorable school conditions would form a bond between them.

“Ken was a charming gentleman and a deep thinker who cared about the world and wasn’t just concerned about his place in it,” Caroline recollects. She was 23 and Ken was 17 years her senior with a son and daughter when they started dating. “My friends were worried about the age difference, but he didn’t look his age, and more importantly, it was his character and his compassion for others that really connected us.”

In 1970, Ken and Caroline would put their jobs on the line to protest against apartheid after stumbling upon a Polaroid mockup of a South African photo identification card referred to by Nelson Mandela as “the hated document.” The passbook was used to supervise and control Blacks in the country during the apartheid regime. “We were very shocked at what we saw,” Caroline says. “This was supposedly a liberal company, and here was proof that Polaroid supported apartheid by producing these passbooks.” 

They instantly launched a grassroots campaign to spread the word and demand the company cease their ties to South Africa and denounce apartheid. This was many years before the international community took a strong stand against the South African government’s oppressive decades-long rule. “We didn’t know much about South Africa at the time, but we knew that it was a bad place for Black people. We didn’t have some big strategy. We just knew it was wrong, and we thought maybe we can do something about this.”

They typed up leaflets, distributed them around the office, and pinned them on company bulletin boards and restroom stalls. They also organized demonstrations outside the company’s offices. Ken and Caroline were the first Americans to take a stand against their employers’ involvement in apartheid. This drew an avalanche of media coverage, and they even testified at the United Nation’s Special Committee on Apartheid in 1977.

Consequently, their actions got them fired from Polaroid shortly after the campaign took off. But the fight lasted a long seven years before the corporation would finally pull out of South Africa.  “It became bigger than we could have ever imagined, and we didn’t back down or run when we found out just how big it was,” says Caroline. 

While the pressure of leading an international boycott and loss of income would put a strain on most couples, Caroline says their fight for justice only strengthened their relationship. “It was just another level in which we connected, and it was a goal we worked towards,” she remembers. “The movement was a security blanket, ’cause no one could divide that connection. We found each other not as friends or love interests, but through social consciousness. That’s where our love and attraction grew from.”

Ken and Caroline got married in 1977 after six years of dating. “He was a great partner and a friend. We had an honest, trusting and loving relationship.” 

The couple had trouble getting hired after Polaroid. Caroline worked various part-time jobs in education before she was hired as a math and science teacher. She’d later go on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard and become the assistant principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Ken was hired in the audio-video department at the Cambridge Public Library, where he remained for 27 years. All the while the pair continued to commit themselves to community service. Ken, a jazz lover, held fundraising concerts to raise money for struggling countries like Somalia.

Three years prior to giving birth to their daughter Lisette in 1983, Caroline suffered a traumatic loss when her first pregnancy resulted in a stillborn birth. “It was a very difficult time and I slipped into a deep and dark world,” she says. “Thankfully I had a wonderful support system in Ken and many women who came forward and shared their own experiences.” Counseling and therapy allowed Caroline to move forward.

“When Lisette came into our life, she brought so much joy into our life. I got to watch Ken be a new father to her in the best possible way. We just doted on her so much. People would always come over and ask why everyone else lets them hold their babies except for us. She was everything to us.”  

Ken and Caroline passed on the importance of community service, education and questioning authority onto Lisette super early. “We were very involved in her schooling. Ken and I would go in and talk to teachers about specific lessons. Just because it was written in a textbook doesn’t make it true. It wasn’t simply about do your homework. We made sure we were aware of what she was learning.”

“I was 7 or 8 when I noticed what my parents did, remembers 30-year-old Lisette. “I would go to my dad’s job at the library, and we would be planning these concerts to raise funds for different countries. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, my parents were invited to meet him. It was at that moment that I remember thinking, ‘this is really cool!’

“As an adult today I can appreciate what my parents fought and stood for. That has definitely rubbed off on me. I used to have an account with Bank of America, but when I learned they were one of the corporations who refused slavery reparations, I closed my account,” explains Lisette, who works for a mental health agency. “I’m so proud of what my parents did, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if they hadn’t had such a profound impact on me.”

Lisette describes her upbringing as happy, with an abundance of love and laughter. “They argued like any other parents, but they were very conscious of not doing it in front of me. Their relationship shaped what I want in my personal life. How I want to be treated is shaped by how I observed them treat each other with respect.”

Sadly, in 1995, when Lisette was 13, Ken was diagnosed with colon cancer. “It was unsettling and very hard to watch Ken go through this,” says Caroline. “I went to every chemo appointment with him, and we also made arrangements for Lisette to attend some with me to demystify the process for her.”

Ken was blessed with three years cancer-free before it returned; it would ultimately take his life only two months after his relapse. “It’s not easy to lose a parent at any age, but it’s a lot harder to say goodbye when you are a teenager,” says Lisette. Ken passed away at home with Lisette, Caroline and the family dog at his side. “He was such vibrant person, and that was not the life he wanted. This is why he refused chemo the second time around. It was just awful for him. When he left the hospital, everyone came out to say goodbye. He had such a loving heart and he was an easy person to love,” shares Caroline.

Once the grief and the pain subsided, Lisette, still in her teens, wanted to honor her father’s legacy with a scholarship fund. For the past 14 years, Lisette and Caroline have awarded humanitarian and art scholarships to high school seniors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Martha’s Vineyard, their second home. So far they’ve given out $20,000, raised through annual golf tournaments (Ken was an avid golfer). “She is her daddy’s child. She is compassionate, passionate, very introspective and caring. I don’t worry about her hurting the world,” says Caroline.

Since Ken’s passing, Caroline has been the recipient of awards and accolades, and several South African and American authors and documentarians have referenced and highlighted her and Ken’s contributions to the anti-apartheid movement.

“Ken and I worked shoulder to shoulder and loved each other dearly. The sacrifices were not in vain. But it does feel good to be acknowledged. When I accepted the 2012 Rosa Parks Memorial Award, I said, ‘This isn’t for me but for my mom, Ken and my daughter.’ ”



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