After a prolonged illness, IU professor emeritus and important contributor to the Department of African American & African Diaspora Studies William Wiggins Jr. died Christmas Eve at the age of 82.
Wiggins came to Bloomington in 1969 with his wife, daughter and aspirations to receive his doctorate from the IU Folklore Institute, now known as the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. He became the first African-American man to receive a Ph.D. in folklore, and he made many contributions to the department with his African-American perspective.
“He was a very necessary mentor, and his mere presence and gentle-but-enormously-firm demeanor was all we needed to get straight and keep our eyes on the prize,” Wiggins’ friend and fellow folklorist Fernando Orejuela wrote on the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology website Jan. 4.
Professor John McCluskey Jr., a friend and former colleague of Wiggins, said he remembers Wiggins as a loyal and modest individual who had a stabilizing demeanor and a genuine sense of humor. He said Wiggins prioritized the education of students by remaining calm in department disputes.
Throughout Wiggins’ years working at IU, he developed many courses that provided students with the opportunity to understand the African-American perspective. These courses covered a variety of topics, such as African-American folklore, African-American culture, the black church and the African-American experience in sports.
Wiggins was the first associate instructor in the Afro-American studies department, or what is currently known as the Department of African American & African Diaspora Studies. The department was founded in 1971 after much student effort. Wiggins was one of the original faculty members of the department and the member who served IU for the longest time.
Although he sought the associate instructor position as a means of supplementing his Folklore Institute fellowship, Orejuela said Wiggins remained a dedicated faculty member of the program. In 2001, when the program’s first master’s students graduated, he said his proudest moment as a faculty member was experiencing the approval of the master’s program two years earlier, Wiggins said in an IU newsletter from 2001.
“Now I’m looking forward to the department enhancing its collaborative efforts with other academic and research units on campus,” Wiggins said. “In sum, I’m looking forward to the department becoming a Ph.D.-granting area within the College of Arts and Sciences.”
Today the department of African American & African Diaspora Studies is a multidisciplinary department of the College of Arts and Sciences, which offers students a B.A., M.A., Ph.D. and the opportunity to receive joint degrees and minors.
Wiggins’ persistence in creating a department that shared the African-American experience with IU students improved the campus community by increasing the University’s breadth of educational experiences and by creating a more welcoming environment for African-American students, Orejuela wrote.
Wiggins is survived by his wife, Janice Wiggins, previously the director of the Groups Student Support Services Program at IU. She is a prominent member of the community and has received the governor’s highest service award, the Sagamore of the Wabash, for her distinguished contributions to Indiana.
In 1988 Wiggins was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, which is awarded to individuals who demonstrate outstanding abilities in scholarship. Although he received numerous accolades throughout his career, McCluskey said Wiggins was never one to brag but instead remained quiet about his accomplishments.
Throughout Wiggins’ career, he was not only a mentor to students but also to faculty and staff members across the campus.
“He was a loyal friend, loyal colleague and loyal citizen,” McCluskey, said. “He was always finding the good in his students, the good in his colleagues and the good in his community.”