Obituary: Rosa Robinson Williams
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Tuesday October 22, 2002
Post-Gazette, Oct. 22, 2002
By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Rosa Robinson “Sootyface” Williams, who left a career as a public-school teacher to found a religious sect that clashed with police and child welfare authorities, died in her sleep Friday at her home in Homewood. She was 68.
Mrs. Williams adopted the name of Sootyface 30 years ago, saying God had instructed her to do so while calling her to be his servant. A teacher and writer, she founded a religious group and school which, at various times, was located in Clairton, the Hill District and the East End.
While living and working in a Clairton storefront, Mrs. Williams and her small, mostly female group of followers first clashed with Allegheny County authorities in 1993 over complaints about the care of children who lived with them.
County sheriff’s deputies broke in the door of Mrs. Williams’ Seed of Joseph church and school, removed seven of her followers’ children and placed them in the custody of the county’s Children and Youth Services agency. Custody of those children was later awarded to their fathers.
After battling with CYS and suing the agency in federal court, Mrs. Williams and the Seed of Joseph movement moved in 1994 to the Hill District. In January 1995, Pittsburgh police arrested five Seed of Joseph members — Mrs. Williams was not among them — after saying the women tried to prevent officers from taking custody of two children.
A woman identified as a Seed of Joseph member also was accused of accosting and harassing a white man and his black child at the East End Food Co-op in 2000. No one was ever arrested in that case.
A native of Clairton, Mrs. Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1955, according to her daughter, Rhoda Williams of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Williams later took graduate courses at the University of Pittsburgh and earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Buffalo-State University of New York in 1966.
Mrs. Williams taught elementary school in Clairton from 1955 to 1965 and also taught in New York, France and elsewhere in Europe, her daughter said. In the mid-1960s, she supervised student teachers and counselors in a program for high school students in New York and directed a Head Start program in Niagara County, N.Y.
In 1976, Mrs. Williams was living, raising two adopted children and teaching in East Amherst, N.Y., when she quit her job, believing that God had directed her to do so in order to instead write “the history of her people,” her daughter said. Mrs. Williams went on to move back to Western Pennsylvania, where she started the Seed of Joseph Foundation.
In 1980, she opened the Seed of Joseph Restoration Academy in her Clairton storefront. She also wrote a school curriculum that reflected her beliefs, as well as a number of books, including “Identity Regained.”
Her foundation most recently was based in Pittsburgh, where Mrs. Williams taught adult followers and helped them to develop businesses that sold bread and clothing under the “Sootyface” label. Mrs. Williams died while in the process of moving again to a location her daughter would not disclose.
In past interviews, Mrs. Williams blamed her legal troubles on racists or people who wished to stymie her mission.
“She believed her mission was to assist God in bringing people to a oneness with God,” Rhoda Williams said. “Whether people understood that mission did not concern her.”
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Williams is survived by one son, Joel Williams of Pittsburgh; three sisters, Irene Jones and Mattie Robinson of Clairton and Mary Stone of Belleview, Neb.; two brothers, Nathaniel Robinson of Fairfield, Calif., and Clarence Robinson Jr. of Clairton; and one granddaughter.
Services will be at 10 a.m. today in Waters Funeral Home of Clairton, 449 Mitchell Ave.
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