Below the University of Louisville's Belknap campus is one of the largest LGBTQ+ archives in the country. Housed in the basement of the Ekstrom Library, the Williams-Nichols Archive is home to thousands of pieces of LGBTQ+ history.
From books and magazines, buttons and fliers, and dozens of handmade signs--everything is a reminder of how far the community has come.
David Williams has been collecting these items, which many would have thrown away, for over four decades. Every piece adding to this unique collection documenting the LGBTQ+ movement and experience in Kentuckiana.
While many saw those old fliers and buttons as trash, Williams saw history.
But how did this collection start? "It's kind of a long story," he said.
It's one as incredible as the historic collection itself.
'Nothing about the gay life': Searching for answers
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, Williams knew something about him was different from many of his other classmates -- he knew he was gay.
“I began to wonder ‘What is this, what’s going on? How do I find out more about this?'” he said.
So he went to the only place he knew where he could search for answers: The Louisville Public Library on York Street in downtown Louisville.
“This was the only source for me to find anything about me,” Williams said.
He searched the shelves, pulling book after book, but he couldn't find exactly what he was looking for. Even in college, Williams wasn't able to find resources that reflected who he was or answered his questions.
“It was frustrating," he said. "We learn about Oscar Wilde and Michelangelo– but nothing about the gay life.”
When Louisville began to organize around gay and lesbian issues in the 1980s, Williams volunteered and got as involved as he could. He met others who were like him, all fighting for equality, to be loved and accepted for who they were.
That lead to protests, events, newsletters and more that Williams took part in.
“A lot of things began to be generated, posters, fliers, newsletters," he said. "I thought, you know someone needs to be collecting these things.”
So he started doing just that and kept those pieces of history at his brick home on Second Street. Little did he know that his collecting would turn into so much more.
'Love goes where it goes': How the archive was named
The AIDS epidemic was rampant in the 1980s and 1990s, killing thousands. Gay and bisexual men were disproportionality impacted.
"I was afraid, being a gay man, I was at risk especially of getting it," he said.
Williams, like many others, was terrified of the disease, but he wanted to help how he could and became involved with the AIDS activist movement in 1991.
That's when he met Norman Nichols.
"Love goes where it goes," he said. "We fell in love and had a fabulous relationship for three-and-a-half years."
Their love is on display in the archive, with photos of a small wedding between the two posing and cutting a large wedding cake.
Although they were not legally able to marry, the love they shared was very real. Even when Nichols started to become very sick.
Nichols had AIDS, and a year before he died, had to quit his job and go on Medicaid. In April of 1995, with Williams by his side in their home, he died.
"What a beautiful man, taken so early," Williams wrote in 2010 when Nichols' obituary was added to the GLBT Historical Society website.
When Nichols died, Williams wanted to memorialize him.
"I was trying to think practical and not think about the sadness that might ensue," he said. "So I thought I needed to memorialize Norman somehow and by that time I had been active in the community for 13 years. So, I named the archive I had: the Williams-Nichols institute."
"I think it's the only archive library in the nation named after two gay lovers," he laughed.
Although losing Nichols was one of the hardest things Williams had ever faced, he continued to focus on his second love: The now Williams-Nichols archive that was taking over his home.
'He is simply a gift': UofL receives its most unique collection
After years of collecting, hundreds of donated items, and more constantly being collected, Williams' home was quickly filling up.
“I started to tell everyone I lived in the archives," he said. "The basement was stuffed with cabinets filled with things. My front room had 3,000 books, the floor was beginning to sag. I thought, something needs to be done here.”
That's when Williams decided to take the thousands of LGBTQ+ books, fliers, posters, buttons and more to the University of Louisville.
Department of Archives and Special Collections Curator Delinda Buie couldn't believe the collection that was being donated to the university.
"He is simply a gift," Buie said. “When David called in 2001 I believed it was going to be big, but I didn’t know what it would grow into.”
It took a large truck and four hours just to unload the first of the massive collection from Williams' home to the university.
Even after everything was moved out of Williams' home, he was known to visit the archive every month and drop off new items. Each additional donation came with a little note describing what the item is and its significance for others to know.
“It’s the only collection like this at the University of Louisville," Buie said. "This one is rooted in the struggles now and for the past few decades. And because of David as people’s struggle continues."
To this day, the collection continues to grow. The archive has helped countless research projects and classes taught at the university.
Buie hopes that this archive being actively used and added to, will help it continue to grow long after both of them are gone.
"I want it to stay visible and alive," Buie said. "This deserves to be here forever."
Williams said it's important for young LGBTQ+ individuals to know just how far the community has come.
If you would like to visit the Williams-Nichols archive, all you have to do is make an appointment.