Mr. William "Bill" Wilson
Executive Board Member
Sadly, Mr. William Wilson (Bill Wilson), Minnesota's first black council member and WISE Scholars Foundation Executive Board Member died Saturday, January 28, 2019, after a six-decade career in activism, politics, and education.
Wilson fell ill and passed away Saturday at the age of 79.
Born in southern Indiana, Wilson spent some of his childhood in an orphanage. He told friends and family of the overt racism he recognized even as a kid — the school bus took him past the schools in his neighborhood, to a school farther away, only for black students.
He won a basketball scholarship to Knoxville College, but eventually wound up at the University of Minnesota, paying for school with work as a lab tech at 3M and a waiter on the Great Northern Railway in St. Paul.
It was a time of racial division and awakening on campus. Wilson's wife, Willie Mae, said students recognized Bill's potential as a leader.
“They worked him over pretty good because they told him you're only using your mind for the white man, you need to do something to help the black community,” she said. “And that got through him.”
Wilson helped form a black student union and went on to found and run the nonprofit Inner City Youth League in St. Paul.
Mr. Wilson joined the staff of the University of Minnesota as Program Coordinator in the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs since 1969. He worked there until his appointment as Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights.
A few years later, in 1975, Gov. Wendell Anderson named Wilson the state's human rights commissioner, a job he also held in the administration of Rudy Perpich.
After Perpich's defeat in 1978, friends encouraged Wilson to run for office himself. They suggested he set his sights on a City Council seat, a daunting prospect as all the candidates had to run citywide at the time. The city had never elected a black council member, and Wilson said advisers cautioned him to downplay his race.
“What you need to do is take a low profile. Regardless of what you say, people can smile to your face, but they get in that booth, you know. I know bigots when I've seen them. You have to be awfully careful,” Wilson said he was advised.
“And I started thinking, how in the world do you run a campaign taking a low profile?” he said.
Ignoring the counsel, Wilson mounted a relentless doorknocking campaign on the city's east side and Highland Park neighborhoods, some of the city's least diverse at the time. He campaigned on neighborhood improvement and economic development and won.
He served more than a dozen years on the council. In 1989, he won reelection by just two votes, but his fellow council members elected him president. He made a bid for mayor in 1993, only to fall to Norm Coleman and eventually lose his council seat.
In tribute to his contributions to the Saint Paul City Government, a bronze bust of Mr. Wilson is displayed on the third floor of Saint Paul City Hall.
He returned to the University of Minnesota to work on diversity and recruiting, and became an early proponent of charter schools.
That is where he met, Marshalette Wise, the founder of WISE Scholars Foundation when he recruited her into the University of Minnesota in August 2000 under that program. He became her mentor from that moment froward, even hiring her as teacher in his groundbreaking charter school, Higher Ground Academy.
Upon retiring from public service, it was no coincidence that in 1999 his vision to do more became a reality and Higher Ground Academy, Minnesota’s premier Afro-Centric K-12 school was born and he served as the Executive Director.
He helped found the Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul in 1999, which has grown to 1,000 students and won accolades for helping address the achievement gap between black and white students.
His continued commitment to molding the youth of today as leaders of tomorrow no doubt left him with the desire to do more.
Today, Higher Ground Academy is doing better than ever. Mr. Wilson had received many awards for his leadership of this groundbreaking charter school. His second school is now in progress.
The school's success was in no small part thanks to Wilson's skills as a relentless collaborator and listener, said Samuel Yigzaw, Higher Ground’s executive director.
“And no matter who — you can be a big name person, you can be a little kid — he would give you the time, and he would listen with no prejudgment,” Yigzaw said. “He is an amazing person.”
Wilson suffered a stroke in May, but was back at work at Higher Ground this fall, and at his desk until the winter break started last week.
Mr. William Wilson was an Executive Board Member of WISE Scholars Foundation. His mentorship and friendship will be greatly missed. He will not be easily replaced on the Board of Directors nor in the fight for all kids to receive an education.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Wilson.