June 22, 2017 10:44:33 AM
Sitting at his desk, all former Rhode Island Chief Justice Frank Williams can see are the empty shelves and cases surrounding him.
The same shelves used to be lined with materials and items from one of the most extensive Abraham Lincoln collections in the U.S., and although it is bittersweet, Williams said, he knows the long journey his collection will soon be taking to Mississippi State University's Mitchell Memorial Library will benefit many more people.
"You know, it was like getting rid of 50,000 children," Williams said. "But it was the right time, the right decision and the right place to go."
MSU President Mark Keenum announced Tuesday the generous donation of Williams' private Lincoln and Civil War Collection, and said the gift will transform MSU into one of the nation's leading destinations for scholars and students studying the American Civil War.
Valued at more than $3 million, the Frank J. and Virginia Williams Collection is considered to be the nation's largest privately owned collection on Lincoln, as well as the most comprehensive.
Comprising more than 17,000 items, the collection features historic memorabilia, artifacts, original, signed documents, Lincoln and Civil War era artwork, photographs and statues. In addition, 12,000 published volumes were gifted, which will be separated into two collections: the Lincoln Book and Pamphlet Collection and the Civil War/Collateral Book and Pamphlet Collection. The two collections, together, comprehensively cover historical writing from 1860 to present day and include nearly every book published about Lincoln.
"Some people have a collection just on Lincoln books or historical writing, and others may collect postcards or pictures," Williams said. "There is nothing else like this, though -- it's the all-around collection and there will never be another one like it."
Frances Coleman, dean of libraries at MSU, said the entire collection is expected to arrive on campus by next week, at which point the cataloging staff will immediately start processing the items and published volumes. The staff will also digitize all materials and develop a website for the collection.
"There are some people who will never get to go to museums, so with collecting these materials and making the exhibit, people can come here (MSU)," Coleman said. "Individuals throughout the region, state and nation will have the opportunity to see these materials and really learn more about Abe Lincoln."
The Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana will be housed along with the Ulysses S. Grant collection on the fourth floor of Mitchell Memorial Library. The floor is part of the $10 million expansion expected to open in November.
The Lincoln collection will be showcased in a 1,200 square-foot gallery, a part of the 21,000 square-foot expansion, and will be organized on a rotating basis, Coleman said.
The goal is to showcase nearly 100 items at a time with each rotation focused on different Lincoln themes, including family, politics, the presidency, the Civil War and popular culture.
Although Williams and his wife currently reside in Rhode Island, they are not unfamiliar with MSU. In fact, Williams, the longtime president of the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation, played a key role nine years ago in relocating the group and its archives to MSU, now home to one of only 14 presidential libraries housed at a university.
Williams, 76, said his strong passion for history began at eight years old when his mother would often read him history stories. Three years later, his interest in Lincoln began because the easily impressed sixth grader sat directly underneath a portrait of Lincoln.
"Being that my last name begins with a 'W,' I was always the last seat in the last row, which is where the print portrait hung," Williams said. "I was just fascinated, and that year, in that seat, was the start of everything."
After that year of school, Williams continued, was when he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, just as the great Abe Lincoln once was.
Upon graduating from the Boston University School of Law, Williams served in the U.S. Army. Following his discharge in 1967, Williams practiced law and was later appointed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 1995. Six years later, he was elevated to Chief Justice.
Williams is also a noted Lincoln scholar and served as president of both the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Lincoln Group of Boston.
The process to relocate the Lincoln collection began a few years ago, Williams said, after he decided he wanted to donate his treasures to an institution and the South, and one that did not already have a Lincoln collection in their possession.
Keenum said he is grateful to see the collection coming to MSU.
"Mississippi State University is immensely proud to receive the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, a truly unique and comprehensive collection that provides unprecedented insight into the life and times of our 16th president and the Civil War era," Keenum said in a university press release. "With this incredibly generous donation and their guiding hand in bringing what has become the U.S. Grant Presidential Library to our campus, the Williamses have made MSU one of the nation's foremost repositories for research into this pivotal period in our nation's history."
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