Tennant Schultz McWilliams
Tennant Schultz McWilliams, longtime Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and a widely published Southern historian, died in Fairhope, Alabama on October 23, 2023. His death after a short illness followed the month of the publication of his latest book, “Dixie Heretic: The Civil Rights Odyssey of Renwick C. Kennedy” on September 23, 2023 by the University of Alabama Press.
His earlier work, “New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of U.A.B.” was hailed as a major contribution to the study of urban universities and their transforming impact on American cities. As a UAB professor and administrator, he was part of that transformative process in his birthplace for 33 years, recruiting scholars whose work reflected his interests in the rigorous, open-minded study of history, politics and civil rights.
His gifts as a charismatic lecturer and riveting conversationalist earned him a nationwide network of professional associates and made him a central figure in an enduring personal circle dating back to his student days at Indian Springs School and Birmingham Southern College. In retirement, he and his wife, Susan Johnson McWilliams, a former administrator at UAB, were active members of the civic and artistic communities in Fairhope, Alabama.
Tennant (Ten) who was 80, was born on September 12, 1943 to the late Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams and Dorothy Schultz McWilliams, descendants respectively of pioneering families in Wilcox County and Mt. Brook, Alabama. His father was a legendary presence at Birmingham Southern College and the University of South Alabama, and his translations of the exploratory journals of Bienville and d’lberville remain seminal documents about the founding of Mobile and New Orleans.
Tennant inherited from his parents their passion for education and their zest of social celebration, progressive causes and networking across a broad cross section of Alabama life. An active outdoorsman and gifted tennis player at BSC, Tennant was perhaps happiest at the McWilliams historic home at Oak Hill, Alabama. His early experiences there inspired his lifelong interest in the sociology of the Alabama Black Belt, which in turn led to his scholarship about Reverend Kennedy’s path-finding role in bringing the historic Black community of Gee’s Bend to nation attention.
Tennant was a 1965 history major at Birmingham Southern College, where he was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He secured his MA at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1967 and the PhD in diplomatic history at the University of Georgia in 1973. In developing his trademark style of combining a vivacious social life and industrious study, he followed his father’s example, but cut his own path in exploring the role of Alabamians in foreign affairs. In addition to his Kennedy biography and his history of UAB, he published widely in professional journals, and pursued his interest in unique Southern personalities in four books of original scholarship, “The Chaplain’s Conflict: Good and Evil in a War Hospital, 1943-45,” “Hannis Taylor, the New Southerner as an American,” “A New Day Coming, Alabama and the Problem of Change, 1877-1920” in 1978 and “The New South Faces the World; Foreign Affairs and the Southern Sense of Self, 1877-1950,” 1988.
Tennant’s vivid personality made him a sought-after companion for cultural and wine explorations in France and fishing adventures that took him from the surf of his beloved St. George Island, Florida to the bonefish flats of the Bahamas and Christmas Island in the South Pacific. On suitable occasions he also pursued with a cluster of college classmates the perfect Martini and the perfect half-shell oyster. “Ten” will most be remembered for his ability to make lasting friendships easily from all walks of life; his love of students; his affection for Rennes, devoted canine companion which predeceased him this summer, his patience and kind nature and generosity towards everyone, and ‘his devotion to his soulmate of 26 years, Susan.
Tennant is survived by his wife Susan; his brothers Richebourg (Jane) of Tallahassee, Florida and Burk (Cheryl) of Birmingham; his children Lauren Lanier Wainwright (mother Paige Wainwright) and Danielle and Jason Vacca McWilliams; his brother-in-law John O’Brien (Joanna) of Houston, Texas; his sister-in law Leanne Johnson Wilson of New Bern, NC; his nephews Vaughn McWilliams (Callan) and Thomas McWilliams (Rebecca); his nieces Evan Pollock (Derek), Katherine Lisenby (Chris), Mary Martha Parisher (Gary) and Katy Carter; and numerous great nephews and nieces.
A memorial service is planned for November 1 at 11:00 am at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Hoover Alabama. Friends will gather for a private celebration afterward at the Galley and Garden Restaurant in Birmingham’s Southside restaurant district. He will be interred near his parents in Elmwood Cemetery.
Memorial Contributions may be made to: Indian Springs School, Indian Springs, Alabama or the charity of your choice.