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William L. Keaton, a Black Pioneer of Alcohol Counseling

Man sitting. In 2010-2011, the CAS library received 32 boxes of archival materials from the widow of a trailblazing alcohol counselor and graduate of both the Yale and Rutgers Summer Schools of Alcohol Studies: William (Bill) Keaton, one of the first Black professional addictions counselors in the United States. The collection spans his personal and professional life, including years of work counseling patients with alcohol use disorders at Hurley Medical Center in Michigan and the subsequent creation of his own non-profit organization.

Library staff immediately began processing this wealth of material. “Bill Keaton had a habit of keeping documentation of everything: newspaper clippings, receipts, training manuals, you name it. We are in the middle of sorting through it all and determining what information is valuable to the library. Once this is completed, we will create a finding aid and house the collection,” wrote lead processing archivist and CAS Library graduate intern Lauren Antolino in the May 2011 issue of the CAS Information Services Newsletter.

Processing continued over the next few years, but unfortunately the closure of the library in 2016 put a stop to the project. When the collection moved to Rutgers University Library Annex in 2017, the boxes had been sorted and most of the collection had been minimally processed (i.e., rehoused in archival boxes and folders with temporary labels), thanks to the work of undergraduate assistants in the library. The collection is currently located on the first floor in the A8 area. A finding aid with detailed descriptions has yet to be created.

Who was Bill Keaton?

Born on March 3, 1916, Bill grew up in the South at a time when schools were still segregated (the school bus would not even pick up African-American students), and he had to fight for the most basic education. Despite all these barriers, Bill graduated from North Carolina Central University. After graduation, he became employed at a factory in Detroit. He left this position, taking a significant pay cut, in order to teach at Alabama State College in 1950 (then still called “Alabama State College for Negroes”).

Bill stayed in this position for four years before becoming a public health education consultant for the Division of Alcoholic Studies and Rehabilitation at the Pennsylvania State Department of Health. In 1957, he became the Program Coordinator for Alcoholism Programs at Hurley Hospital (now Hurley Medical Center). After a year of service, he was promoted to the Chief Alcoholism Therapist and stayed in this position until 1976. Mr. Keaton established Insight, Inc. in 1967, William L. Keaton and Associates in 1971, and Insight International, Inc. in 1974. He died on January 1, 2004.

Treasures in the collection

Although the majority of the documents are related to Keaton’s employment and his nonprofit organizations, several folders contain rare documents not found elsewhere––including some related to the Summer School of Alcohol Studies, such as brochures, correspondence, newsletters, and Keaton’s diplomas and alumni card. The collection also includes Keaton’s resumé (1975) and a short autobiography he wrote in 1954, which offer a view of his professional development and achievements in his own words.

Just as interesting is a thick packet entitled Nomination of William L. Keaton for an Honorary Doctorate. In 1980 the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the North Carolina Central University Alumni Association nominated Keaton for an honorary degree from his undergraduate alma mater, NCCU. Although the title was not awarded, the packet makes a compelling case, and offers an invaluable glimpse into the life and achievements of one of the first African-American alcohol therapists and educators, including several decades’ worth of documents, certificates, newspaper clippings with photos, and other memorabilia.

What we learned from the collection

Selecting content to share from the Keaton Collection for the Digital Alcohol Archives in 2023 was truly eye-opening. Keaton’s talent and determination speak for themselves, and his longstanding association with the Summer School at both Yale and Rutgers highlights the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion even during an era of official segregation. During his first Summer School experience in 1952, Keaton would have traveled from segregated Alabama to find faculty and students of different races and backgrounds living and learning together under one roof, sharing classrooms, dorms, and dining halls for the entire six-week program. E. M. Jellinek’s inclusive vision for the School, which provided opportunities for addictions professionals from underrepresented backgrounds such as Keaton, might help explain the failure of other Summer School initiatives outside the tri-state area, including Jellinek’s attempt to create one in Texas: in some parts of the mid-twentieth-century United States, the Summer School’s effort to integrate the addictions field was an idea ahead of its time.

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