Rudy Wilson & GCHS: A Colored History
March 1, 2017
As my parents moved into this town in the late 1980’s, it was no secret that they were outsiders. Granite City was quite literally all white, and if there were minorities, there were very, very few. But Granite City is far from unique. This entire region had little to no minorities. However, after the buzz of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, adaptations for a more inclusive society slowly, but steadily, made their way towards us.
As much as I hate to admit it, Edwardsville became the initial leader of change within this area. In 1970, SIUE hired Rudolph Wilson as a faculty staff member, one of the first African Americans to work at the university. But Rudy Wilson was far from your ordinary man. From WashU to UCLA and Stanford, Wilson set the bar high for his ambitions and did not fail to meet them.
But how did Wilson, a black man, flourish in a time that only allowed white people to succeed?
“Rudy was very outspoken about things. But Rudy had such an approach to life that people didn’t really express a lot of racial remarks to him. He was all around liked. Even people who opposed him didn’t have many negative things to say about him. He was well liked throughout the community and the university. He ran the school board here in Edwardsville and was the first African American elected to a public position here and stayed on the school board for eighteen years,” said Rudy’s wife, Sandra Wilson.
However, success was not given to him. Like anyone else, Rudy worked his way up the ladder. In 1965, he became the first African American to teach at Claremont Graduate University in California. Five years later, the president of SIUE made it his mission to recruit black students and teachers to his school. Among them was Rudy Wilson. Not long after, he became the assistant provost for Cultural and Social Diversity and a professor in the School of Education.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why any of this matters. Why is Rudy Wilson relevant? Why should the students and citizens of Granite City care about this man?
After becoming part of the School of Education in SIUE, Rudy was required to look after student teachers and visit different high schools to shadow and mentor them. However, when Wilson walked in to Granite City High School one day, it was made very clear to him that he was not wanted simply for the color of his skin.
“He went to supervise student teachers at Granite City, and it was not acceptable to the school. And so when he went back to the university, and I don’t know how the president of the university got involved, but he was real hands on. He contacted Granite City and said, ‘If you cannot accept the people that are representing us then we will not send you student teachers from the university.’ From what I know about Rudy is that he was done with it. It was not something that he wanted to make a big deal out of. The university had dealt with it and Granite had apparently accepted the consequences. Granite was known for being extremely racist, you know. But it wasn’t really a big deal because you dealt with those kind of situations in this area. The message that the president sent was that they were not going to accept that,” said Sandra Wilson.
“The university made a decision not to send student teachers to Granite City until they accepted whoever SIUE sends. But the school district made it clear that they did not want him. They thought it would cause problems with faculty and staff, as during the time, Granite City did not have any African American faculty,” said Donald Baden, a School of Education colleague of Wilson’s at SIUE.
But did this really happen?
It truly did, and as a result, for more than ten years, Granite City was denied student teachers from SIUE. That was until the 90’s when the one and only Mr. Randy Burgess was the first to break Granite City’s unwritten policy concerning student teachers.
“This would have been 1991 when I did my student teaching. It was kind of a big deal that I was here. I’m not 100% sure that I was the first, but I don’t remember another student teacher being here while I was,” said Mr. Burgess.
But why were other schools moving forward and we were stuck in the mud? Why was Granite City so insistent on their refusal of change? Why do events from more than 20 years ago, such as these, even matter?
All of these questions are important to ask and do ultimately matter because it’s the true, dark history of our town. It matters because this isn’t the only circumstance in Granite City when we’ve had racial tensions. It matters because every town in the United States has trudged through its own racist history. It’s easy to sweep it under the rug. It’s easy to pretend as though things like this did not and do not happen when they have and still currently do in some places.
No one wants to embrace a shameful past. I get that. But it’s through shining a light on our past that we can learn, understand, and improve our future.
Granite City is far from perfect. We might not be the most inclusive or diverse town, but that doesn’t mean we’re not constantly working towards a better tomorrow. Does racism still exist within our life, our town, our school? Of course, and to some extent, it always will. We’re a nation of faults, of division, especially right now. But it’s through understanding our divided history that we can pave the way for a brighter future.
On behalf of Granite City, I want to apologize to Rudy Wilson for what happened, no matter how long ago that was. No one deserves to be treated as a second class citizen, ever. I hope that we, as a community, as a nation, can reflect upon stories such as Rudy’s and millions of other marginalized people and ultimately learn from our past. Only then will we ever develop into the country that truly stands for liberty and justice for all.