Born in a rural farm community outside Fayetteville, North Carolina, Williston was the second of twelve children in a supportive and educated middle-class family. He was the first professionally trained black landscape architect in the United States and the first to establish his own professional office. One of the first African Americans to receive a degree from Cornell University, Williston graduated in 1898 with a B.S. in agriculture, studying under Liberty Hyde Bailey, and went on to acquire an additional degree in municipal engineering from the International Correspondence School in Pennsylvania. He both taught and practiced as a horticulturist and campus planner at dozens of historically black institutions, notably at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he taught for more than 20 years and joined African-American architect Robert R. Taylor to plan much of the physical layout of the campus. After the onset of the Great Depression, Williston relocated to Washington, D.C., where he spent the remainder of his life. His campus planning activities included Clark University in Atlanta, Alcorn State University in Mississippi, Lane College in Tennessee, and Philander Smith College in Arkansas, as well as the expansion of the Howard University campus, which he undertook with Cornell-trained, African-American architect Albert Cassell.