PULLMAN, Wash. — A career spanning almost half a century has taken James E. Blackwell to Pullman, a segregated California, politically unstable countries in Africa and Asia, and to the South, where he worked for equality in higher education.
Blackwell recounted his experiences during an afternoon gathering Tuesday (April 16) at Washington State University after accepting the university’s highest honor for an alumnus, the WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award. His presentation, “Reflections of an Academic: Connections to the ‘Real World,’” was part of WSU’s celebration marking 100 years of graduate education.
Blackwell was among nearly a dozen African American graduate students in sociology recruited to WSU in the late 1940s and early 1950s to complete their doctorates. He earned his sociology doctoral degree in 1959.
Throughout his life, Blackwell said he has tried to apply what he has learned in the academic world to “the real world for some social benefit.” The first test of this philosophy came when Blackwell accepted a position at San Jose State University during the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I never anticipated two years later a cross would be burned on our front lawn,” he said. “Neither did I expect that in the liberal state of California so many people of color would be subjected to discrimination in job opportunities, housing, swimming pools, playgrounds or that pockets of poverty would be so widespread.”
But Blackwell said he used his knowledge of social organizations and social movements to help build coalitions within the community that transcended race, class and gender. Membership in the local NAACP chapter soared and Blackwell’s leadership helped end discrimination in recreation facilities and hiring practices in local businesses; obtain tuition waivers at San Jose State for African American students expelled from their Southern college for protesting segregation; and raised thousands of dollars in bail money for Freedom Riders in the South.
After serving in the Peace Corps as deputy director in Tanzania and Malawi, Blackwell traveled to Nepal in the late 1960s as a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Agency for International Development. Blackwell’s work included fighting hunger and poverty, helping train community development workers who helped underdeveloped villages, assisting with flood relief and providing relief to Tibetan refugees who had escaped from China’s Red Revolution.
“Special experiences” there, he said, included traveling the sub-continent of India from Bombay to Calcutta by Land Rover “encountering thousands of India’s sacred cows and some of the teeming millions along the highway.”
“I have vivid memories of the homeless in Calcutta, rolling out their straw mats on sidewalks at dusk for a night’s sleep because they had no shelter,” he remembered. “I can still visualize the unbelievably long queues of hungry people lined up at a distribution site for just one cup of rice.”
His experiences taught him that change could only happen when it came from strategies that are discovered by local people, rather than an outside bureaucracy.
“Even in the face of unyielding and devastating poverty, massive social deprivation and caste-structured inequalities, many people resigned themselves to the status quo and sometimes regarded change as an attack on their culture and established traditions,” he said.
After his stint in Nepal, Blackwell devoted the remainder of his career to alleviating problems associated with people of color at “predominantly white institutions — PWIs” in America and improving “historically black colleges and universities.”
Among Blackwell’s observations at one court case in which he was called as an expert witness, was that if state-supported institutions could recruit and enroll “week-end gladiators as well as entertaining and talented hoopsters” to help garner national sports championships, then “they could be doing a much better job of recruiting and matriculating non-athlete African American students for their academic programs.”
He noted that through legal action, many positive changes have occurred, including larger numbers of African American students enrolled in predominantly white institutions and expanded academic programs at historically black institutions.
“I have absolutely no illusions that racism has disappeared or that people of color operate on a level playing field,” he said. “However, I am convinced that there are many persons in leadership positions who continue to work diligently to alleviate these problems.”
The only way to eliminate institutional discrimination, he said, is with “unwavering commitment, unequivocal leadership and strong decision-making.”
The WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award was established in 1961 to recognize individuals who made distinguished contributions to society and through their personal achievements have brought distinction to the university.