Oral history and blog post by Katherine L. Jennison
“There would be many black students who would just come to my door and peek just to make sure. A couple of them even wanted to touch my hands to make sure I was real. It was a culture shock for the black students as much as it was a culture shock for me to be in that environment…. Many of the white students had never seen a black teacher” — Willie Stewart.
On the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Tacoma School District took voluntary measures to desegregate a select number of schools with high non-white enrollment. The district superintendent, Dr. Angelo Giaudrone, drew attention to the de facto segregation, and primarily focused on two elementary schools: Stanley Elementary, with a black population of 64 percent and McCarver Elementary, with a black population of 84 percent. In 1963, a subcommittee was formed to analyze and study the de facto segregation and provide recommendations for potential solutions. On July 8, 1966, a plan was announced by the school board for an optional enrollment program that relied on closing McCarver Junior High and to provide limited open enrollment to students affected by the closing.
In 1960, Willie Stewart was hired by Tacoma School District and assigned to Gault Junior High to teach life science and physical science. Stewart taught at Gault until 1966, when he was promoted to assistant principal. He stayed at Gault for three years until he was hired at Lincoln High School as assistant principal. A year later (1970), he became that first black principal in the Tacoma School District.1.
Willie Stewart c. 1966
According to Stewart, the biggest hesitancy for black families was the loss of historical lineage with their neighborhood school. “I’d have to work with the family, whose school is no longer there, and the principal by convincing them that this was the best program and most viable option for these kids based on where they lived.”
Stewart was often a liaison between the black community and the school district. “When there was a decision to close McCarver…. I was asked to be the person to stand between the school district and the black community to accept their students being bused between their home and different schools throughout the city.” When asked to look back on the effectiveness of the voluntary desegregation plan, Stewart said, “I wish there were have been more African American counselors, but we used everyone we had; we just didn’t have enough. We could have used a two-year education process, rather than one year. Many teachers had never talked to a black student, so those were some of the apprehensions.” Stewart thought the district could also have improved their plan, by having high school regional meetings with schools and the community as well as separate meetings for the black community to help with the transition with the loss of school lineage.
Stewart led the counseling program for two years before stepping down to focus on his duties as principal at Lincoln. In 1972, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, the schools district declared an end to de facto segregation in fifty-eight school buildings; with all buildings at or below the forty-percent threshold for black student enrollment. According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights a decade later, the summer counseling program was pivotal to the success of the voluntary desegregation program in the Tacoma School District.