Notes on Earth: The Heritage of the WC-Riles
The city of Flagstaff recently changed the name of a street in downtown Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century scientist and racist, to Wilson C. Riles, the first black student to enroll at Arizona State Teachers College, which later became North -Arizona became a university.
Riles’ was originally from Louisiana and was orphaned at a young age. He came to Flagstaff with his adoptive family in the mid-1930s so they could work in the sawmill. After graduating from NAU, Riles became headmaster in Flagstaff, where he endured segregation and institutionalized racism. Fought as a civil rights activist, he focused on separating the city’s schools – a goal he and others achieved in 1953.
Riles later worked for the California Department of Education and was elected state superintendent of public education – the first black ever elected to a senior position in the California government. He eventually received nine honorary doctorates and, at the request of then President Richard Nixon, led a working group on urban education.
One of Riles’ most enduring contributions is the foundation he set up at NAU to help underprivileged youth enter college. A building on campus bears his name, a reminder of his struggle for equality, justice and education. In a 1996 interview, three years before his death, Riles said, “I believe that in America, in the United States, we are in a position to be able to make our greatest contribution in serving people of all races and ethnicities demonstrate. Religion can live together in respect and harmony. And if we can show that, that will be our great contribution to the world. “