Essay: Undaunted

June 6, 1966 marked a memorable date in what, retrospectively, was to begin an improbable journey to the University of Washington. Having begun my college career at Virginia Union University – a historically black college – in September 1955, my life took an unexpected turn two years later. Like countless number of black males, I dropped out of school and started a full-time job in the U.S. Post Office. It meant postponing my degree and working 10 hours per day. I met my wife as a college classmate; we were married in 1958 and had two sons. She graduated and began a teaching career in Richmond, while I continued as a postal clerk.

My wife steadily encouraged me to continue my education. By taking classes whenever my work schedule would permit, I earned my B.A in sociology in 1966 and began a saga I had never envisioned. After the commencement ceremonies concluded, graduates exited Barco-Stevens Hall and proceeded to the library to return our graduation regalia. During that short walk, the realization came to me that after 11 years and a near-death experience with hepatitis, I had achieved my goal of graduating. Likewise, it spontaneously occurred to me that I should go to graduate school. The problem was, it was June, and I was thinking of attending that fall. It never occurred to me that this goal was unattainable and I proceeded to submit applications for admission. My wife was taken completely by surprise since we had never discussed the possibility.

The rejection letters were prompt and some were downright mean. UW’s rejection letter was the last to arrive but its wording left me with a glimmer of hope. It was now near the end of July and I faced two possibilities: give up and apply later or make a case for myself. I chose the latter. Each day when I came home from work, I would call the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning and plead my case to whoever answered the phone. One fateful day, Myer Wolfe, the chair of the department, answered the phone. He had been told of my persistent calls. After pleading my case, he agreed to revisit my application under the condition that I send three strong letters of support. He made no promises. I only wanted a chance.

One August day, my wife picked me up from work bearing a letter from UW. When we got home, I opened the letter to the words, “Dear Graduate Student …” Typically, a letter of acceptance into a sought-after graduate program would be met with exuberance and great anticipation. My exuberance, however, was tempered with the realization that I was now contemplating moving across the country, from Virginia to Seattle, to a world I wasn’t familiar with. And I would be leaving my family on the East Coast.

While my dream of entering graduate school had come to fruition, it was no small task for my wife to now manage the responsibilities of being a full-time school teacher, raising two young sons and coping with the anxieties of her husband several thousand miles from home, especially since this was the first time our family had ever been separated. Our original plan was for me to come to Seattle and complete the first year of the UW’s two-year program, return to Richmond for the summer, and then go back to the UW to complete my second year.

A white co-worker asked why I found it necessary to go to school. Another told me that my post office job “is the best job you’ve ever had.” My reply was that she was correct but it was not the best I was ever going to have. Neither of these persons ever knew how their words served to inspire me. The racial history of Virginia also played a crucial role. In its desire to keep the schools racially segregated, Virginia offered black students a tuition grant to leave the state to earn a graduate degree if they could earn that same degree in a public institution in the state. I received the last two years of the grant. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently declared the program unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, everything seemed manageable when I left Washington National Airport in September 1966 for Seattle, but none of us could have imagined how our life would subsequently unfold.

Two days after my arrival in Seattle, the chair of the urban planning department, Myer Wolfe, hosted a welcoming reception for the graduate students at his home. I had looked forward to meeting the person who had been instrumental in my admission and to whom I owed a debt of deep gratitude. Although that Sunday was sunny, with only a few scattered clouds, I was mindful of the advice I had received regarding Seattle weather. “It always rains,” I was told. Thus, I was well prepared upon arriving at his home – but to my surprise, I was the only person with an umbrella. This immediately became a point of humor and marked my introduction to the faculty and my new colleagues in urban planning.

I noticed that there were students of color in attendance but I was the only African American in the program. (There were some students from abroad, however.) Myer Wolfe and his wife greeted me with the same generous hospitality they showed the other students. While racially my world had changed dramatically, the hope of good things to come had brightened. I could not wait to share the good news with my family.

Shortly after the reception at the Wolfes’ home, I had to secure housing for my first year and I managed to receive a room on campus in McMahon Hall. My roommate was a graduate fisheries student from Thailand. Throughout my life in Richmond, I had never met anyone from Thailand. For the next three months, my roommate and I shared what could only be described as one of the most interesting cultural exchanges imaginable. The old strictures of racial separation had no place here and our friendship grew beyond just sharing a common space. Two other students from Vietnam lived close by and all of us became friends. In the dining hall, I met students from parts of the country that I dare say I would not have encountered in Richmond. Similarly, the composition of my classes contained students from states one did not frequently encounter in Richmond.

The landscape of the Seattle region and the Pacific Northwest further enlarged my appreciation of my new surroundings. To the best of my abilities, I tried to convey this environment to my family. But except through photos, it was impossible to capture the impact of Rainier Vista and Mount Rainier. Traveling together and sharing new experiences were always things we had done as a family and now I was in a new place where I could only convey these things with imprecision.

While I was making the adjustments to my new world, I received word that my application for a Virginia State tuition grant had been approved. In the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the desire to maintain segregation, the state offered black students the opportunity to receive a grant to earn a graduate degree outside the state (the exceptions were Alaska and Hawaii), if they could have earned that same degree within the state. Since I could have earned a degree in planning at a public institution within Virginia, the state awarded me funds to attend UW. This greatly relieved the concerns I had for financing my education.

I looked forward with great anticipation to the first day of classes. My first class was a housing course taught by Professor Arthur Grey. It was a popular course and central to the urban planning curriculum. Upon entering the classroom, I immediately took a seat in the back row although seats were available elsewhere. Being in the back was a relic of having grown up in the segregated South. No one had to tell me to sit there. It had been ingrained through history that that was my place. Except for a few international students and a very small number of students of color, the majority of the class was white. I was the only African American. In my consciousness, an old racial adage began to play out. The racial stereotype was that whites were brighter than everyone else and that they were going to set the academic standards for the class. The conclusion I made was that this was going to be a steep hill to climb. For weeks, I was more spectator than participating student. I attended all the lectures, took notes and paid careful attention to classroom discussions. When the first test was given and papers were returned, I was convinced that I had made a terrible mistake in coming to UW. I was going to be overwhelmed by others in the class. There could be no turning back, however. Too much jubilation and hope had accompanied my leaving my job at the post office and my home in Richmond. Would those who questioned my decision feel vindicated? I spent several restless nights grappling with what to do. I finally decided to go to Professor Grey’s office and plead my case. My script was carefully planned and rehearsed earnestly.

At the moment of reckoning I was invited into Professor Grey’s office, took a seat and began my plea. After listening attentively, he looked directly into my face and began a stern rebuke of my feeble petition. In no uncertain terms, he explained the circumstances of my admission and what the department saw in my potential. He went on to explain the high standards the department held for its students. As he spoke, I realized that I was essentially asking him to evaluate me on lower standards than those expected of other students because of who I was. His concluding statement is one that has resonated with me more than 50 years hence and I believe lost in the argument regarding affirmative action. Professor Grey said to me that despite the circumstances of my admission to the UW, I would only graduate if and when I maintained the same standards of excellent required of every other student in the program. There would be no affirmative action graduation!

I left his office repentant and with much to think about. In no uncertain terms, he had made the challenge clear but mostly he affirmed his confidence that my success would come through the determination and grit I had displayed in getting admitted in the first place. Before leaving his office, Professor Grey inquired about my progress on a major class assignment. He recommended several resources he thought would be useful and wished me the best. The end result was a solidly researched and written paper. Henceforth, my confidence soared and I have never sat in the back of any room since (unless there was nowhere else available). In my career as a teacher, I have always endeavored to not allow students to use excuses when I felt their abilities dictated they were capable of doing better.

At the beginning of my second year in the program, Professor Grey and I developed an outreach strategy to encourage black high school students in Seattle to consider a career in urban planning. During my last quarter (Spring 1968), we brought a group of students from Garfield High School to the campus to spend a day learning about urban planning as a profession. They met with faculty as well as the president of the university. Professor Grey subsequently became my thesis adviser. Years later, when I returned to Seattle, we had lunch and he jokingly said to me, “Bill, I knew what you were trying to get over on me, but I was not going to allow it.”

While my adjustment to campus life was progressing, there was the constant longing for my family. Life with my roommate was fine and I had come to make friends with several students. But something in my life was missing. One night, my loneliness became more than I could endure. I called my wife at 11:10 p.m. Pacific time (2:10 a.m. Eastern time) and asked her to come to Seattle to be with me. Needless to say, she thought I was crazy and told me so; however, she agreed. I have been eternally grateful for her decision since there was no promise of a job in Seattle for her, she would be leaving a full-time teaching position, relocating our sons in mid-school year and taking a risk that we would survive as a family. Furthermore, neither of us had any relatives in the West.

On Dec. 27, 1967, we packed the family and headed out from Richmond for the long drive to Seattle. The weather forecast was for snow in much of the country and I had to be at school the first week of January. If there were any romance in our trip, it was driving west on Route 66 and recalling Nat “King” Cole’s version of the classic song. We arrived in Seattle on Jan. 1, 1968 and lived in hospital staff housing on 15th Avenue N.E. The next day, my wife found a job at Stevens School. We enrolled our sons in school and we began life anew 3,000 miles from our roots. From living in an all-black neighborhood in Richmond, we now were living in an international community. During the day, the men in the housing complex were in residence at UW Medical Center and I became the community dad when I was not in class. A special treat for us was going to Ivar’s, where we enjoyed fish and chips.

Throughout my time in the program, Myer Wolfe would inquire about my progress. He was a constant source of support although he never let me forget having the umbrella at his house during the reception. I always felt the need to never let him down. He had taken a chance on me. His faith, along with Professor Grey’s admonition, was the pillow upon which I built my confidence and sense of direction. Our family experiences were broadened with our on-campus and off campus contacts and Seattle was becoming home to me. However, my wife and sons were somewhat less enthusiastic, especially about the rain. But my years of service in the post office began to fade as I saw new possibilities for myself.

It was never lost on me that I was joining a very select group in this country. I could not verify it but I heard that during the 1960s, there were less than 60 black city planners in the entire nation. Being one among a few helped to put both Professors Wolfe’s and Grey’s comments to me into context. In my mind was always the thought that standards were important and being among the few did not excuse me from those standards.

During the second year of the graduate program, much of the work was group (that is, studio) oriented. There I had to work with classmates from other disciplines and perspectives to develop policies and plans. These projects allowed me to get to know them on a more personal basis. With some I shared a commonality in that we were married with families.

Graduation was a decision time for us. The department had just begun its first doctoral program in urban planning and I was encouraged to apply for its first cohort. At the time, I hadn’t thought beyond a master’s degree. I had been offered a job with the San Francisco Department of Housing and Urban Development. My wife frequently asked if I didn’t want to stay at UW. Her principal was anxious for her to stay. In retrospect, I often wonder what would have happened if I had made the decision to stay. I had come to like Seattle and we had grown as a family. My wife had harbored the thought that we would return to Richmond, and moving on to another unknown world did not delight her. As a teacher, she was not thrilled with the idea of moving our sons yet again to another school system. But, move we did.

In 1988, I joined the Department of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. Two years later, I assumed the position of department chair. The number of sociology majors was declining and there was speculation of what to do with the department. My dean and I met and it was decided that he would give me a chance to rebuild the department. To accomplish this task, I immediately drew upon my planning background and the lessons I had learned at UW. The planning principles and questions we studied as students afforded me a solid background to build a department that was subsequently recognized with an award for its outstanding achievement.

The confidence entrusted in me by Myer Wolfe, Arthur Grey and other of my professors in the urban planning program at UW has returned dividends over nearly a half-century later.