Sylvia L. Hill Williams was the first woman to hold the position of Director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Williams was born in 1936, in Lincoln, Pennsylvania. Her father was a Professor of English and Dean at Lincoln University. Williams attended Lincoln University in 1953, but after a year decided to finish her studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. She graduated in 1957 with a major in art history. From 1957 until 1960 she studied at the School of Library Science at Columbia University while working at the Museum of Modern Art Library.
In 1961, Williams accepted the position as Secretary to the Director of the African-American Institute in Lagos, Nigeria. The following year, she studied in Paris at the Ecole Practique de I’Miance, and she earned the Certificate de Francais Parle. She returned to the United States in 1963 and became an escort interpreter for visiting French-speaking dignitaries in the Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs.
In 1971, she was named a Mellon Research Fellow at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City. In 1983, she accepted the position of Director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Williams became the first woman to head a Smithsonian museum. She later served as a member of the Allen Memorial Art Museum Visiting Committee and a member of the Board of Trustees, Oberlin College. During Williams’ career, she received several awards, honors, and recognition for her work. Williams died in 1996.