The power of books

Frank Wills’ daughter Susan Amat, who served as the founding executive director of UM’s Launch Pad, points out a book published by her father. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Frank Wills’ daughter Susan Amat, who served as the founding executive director of UM’s Launch Pad, points out a book published by her father. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

The power of books

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
A former UM professor started a company dedicated to publishing books on African-American culture, helping to give students access to their history.

Finally, the first box had arrived. University of Miami English professor Frank Wills placed it on his desk and pried it opened, finding inside a collection of original black history and literature books that he knew every African-American student should have access to but didn’t.

Frank Wills UM yearbook photoSo to correct that academic injustice, Wills immediately got to work, reproducing the books through his Miami-based publishing company and selling them at break-even cost to academic libraries across the nation.

That was in 1969. Over the next 20 years, other boxes would arrive, and Wills would end up publishing hundreds of existing titles by such famous black scholars and poets as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, and Phillis Wheatley. Originally published in the 1800s and early 1900s, the books are in the public domain and not subject to copyright restrictions. Wills published them as facsimile reprints with the original illustrations and typesetting.

But it was that first delivery of books 50 years ago that started it all. Back then, most of the nation’s universities and colleges didn’t have black studies departments. UM had been pondering the idea of starting such a program. One of the roadblocks was a lack of books on black history, culture, and literature.

Wills wanted to help, and one of the keys, he knew, was acquiring the books. But where could he find them? His big break came in 1969 on, of all places, a flight to Nashville, Tennessee.

Aboard the plane, he sat next to a philanthropist who was on his way to present a check to the library at the private and historically black Fisk University. So enthralled was Wills with the philanthropist’s mission that he decided to accompany him to Fisk after they landed, and it was at the Nashville-based university that Wills met librarian Jessie Carney Smith.

Together, they sifted through the Fisk library’s extensive collection of African-American books, selecting hundreds of titles that Wills decided he wanted to republish.

When he returned to Miami, he took out a bank loan to start his Mnemosyne Publishing company. And soon after, Smith, who is now dean of the library at Fisk, sent Wills the first shipment of books for republishing.

Wills would then sell the books to university libraries, giving academics and students access to the texts in their original form and language and helping to pave the way for schools of higher education to launch black studies programs in the years that followed.

He never profited on the sale of any of the books he published. “He wasn’t interested in making money,” said his wife, Susan Wills, a School of Law graduate and retired attorney. “He saw a need and just wanted the books to be there to better the lives of students. He wanted young students, through literature, to accomplish and succeed for their families, themselves, and society. And it was important for him to get the books into their hands.”

The titles ran the gamut—from William Wells Brown’s “The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius and His Achievements,” to Charles Chesnutt’s “The Colonel’s Dream,” to Du Bois’ “Quest of the Silver Fleece,” to Dunbar’s “The Love of Landry,” to Washington’s “A New Negro for a New Century.”

Frank Wills headshotToday, Wills, 94, is retired and suffers from Alzheimer’s. Many of the works he published can still be found on the shelves of college and university libraries across the nation, including UM’s Richter Library.

“Every once in a while, I go to the Richter to look at some of the books. It’s such an incredible experience,” said Wills’ daughter, Susan Amat, who served as the founding executive director of UM’s Launch Pad and now heads her own entrepreneurship education company, Venture Hive.

Amat noted that Wills was sympathetic to Cubans who fled their homeland after Castro took power. So after he finished his African-American book series, he collaborated with Juan Manuel Salvat, the former owner of Ediciones Universal, a Miami publishing company that preserves Cuban history and culture, to publish works of major Cuban writers.

Wills’ life story would make an intriguing novel in its own right, said Susan Wills, noting her husband’s military service.

He grew up poor in a mixed Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood of Italian immigrants and blacks. After Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II in 1941, a then-17-year-old Wills dropped out of high school to join the Navy, persuading his mother to sign the papers that allowed him to enlist.

He spent the next four years in the Pacific, serving in the forward engine rooms on three submarines that undertook death-defying missions such as deploying mines, rescuing downed American pilots, and attacking enemy supply ships.

He was a whiz at math, and his proficiency in the discipline helped him get promoted, even over other sailors who had college engineering degrees.

But Wills has never really talked much about his military service. “He’s never wanted to boast about it,” said his wife. “It’s always been difficult getting information out of him. He did what he was asked to do and more. He never whined or complained about how tough it was. He just went about doing it. Service to others, always thinking about the greater good—his whole life is built around that.”

On one of the rare occasions that Wills did share an experience from his days in the Pacific, he recalled being trapped at the bottom of Tokyo Bay aboard a submarine with his shipmates for days, as their commander tried to avoid being detected by enemy ships.

After the war, he enrolled at Ohio State on the G.I. Bill but later transferred to UM, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and then attending the University of Maryland for his master’s.

He returned to UM to teach full-time, instructing students not only in English literature but also math. He also advised students, helped Vietnam War veterans get enrolled on the G.I. Bill, and recruited talented Latin American artists for the art department, according to his wife. An Iron Arrow inductee, he served as the honor society’s faculty advisor. But his true calling was mentoring students, she said.

“He was not an academic, not a scholarly kind of person,” said Susan Wills. “At heart, he was a mentor.”

Wills retired from UM in 1984 but continued to publish books. During Hurricane Andrew, a small tornado blew the doors off of his book warehouse in South Dade, destroying most of their inventory.

“He taught me how to be a much better person,” said Susan Wills. “He’s a part of the Greatest Generation.”