After training at Harvard, Williams pursued a successful legal career that included time in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York. She then returned to graduate school at Yale to work on African American history and to foster her love of teaching. Since receiving her Ph.D. in 2002, she has established herself as one of the top scholars specializing in the study of slavery and African American history in the 18th and 19th century American South. Her book Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom won the Lillian Smith Book Award 2006 of the Southern Regional Council; American Educational Research Association New Scholar’s Book Award 2005-2006; George A. and Jeanne S. DeLong Book Prize for 2005, Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing; Honor Book 2006, Black Caucus of the American Library Association; and, Honorable Mention 2006, History of Education Society Book Prize. Williams was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor in 2007, after only three years in rank.
Her 2012 book, Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, is an innovative history of the individual, familial, and communal pain that resulted from forced separations of black families, charting their grief and sense of loss, as well as their resilience and hope. She was promoted to full professor after that book. Her most recent book, American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction, will be published by Oxford University Press this fall. She also received a prestigious Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship for her current project on Jamaican immigration to the United States.