Home Written work Charles Vert Willie, 94, dies; Studied and championed racial diversity

Charles Vert Willie, 94, dies; Studied and championed racial diversity


Charles Vert Willie, a sociologist whose work reshaped our understanding of inclusive schooling and black family life, and whose stance against sexism in the Episcopal Church paved the way for the ordination of female priests, died Jan. 11 at his home in Brighton, Mass. He was 94 years old.

His daughter, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, confirmed the death.

Dr. Willie, who taught at Syracuse University and later at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, called himself an applied sociologist – someone who not only studied social problems but also proposed ways to solve them.

He arrived at Harvard in 1974, and soon after began advising the city of Boston in its efforts to integrate its public schools. Dr. Willie was a proponent of transporting students to different school districts to achieve racial balance, but he acknowledged the process generated an intense backlash from many white parents who threatened to undermine his goals.

By the late 1980s, he and a graduate assistant, Michael Alves, had devised a new system, which they called controlled choice. City elementary schools would no longer be filled based on geographic proximity; instead, parents would list their top three choices. In most cases, they would get their first choice, as long as that school maintained a racial balance close to that of the city as a whole.

The plan was a success. Not only has it better integrated the schools; based on parental input, it also revealed schools that needed improvement, allowing the city to refocus its resources to help them. Over the next decade, Dr. Willie and Mr. Alves helped dozens of school districts across the country implement the controlled-choice model.

Dr. Willie’s scholarship had a similar influence.

His 1976 book, “A New Look at Black Families,” pushed back against the conventional wisdom of the 1960s, promoted by scholars like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argued that the social problems of the black community, including low rates of marriage, were the result of deep pathologies dating back to the time of slavery.

Dr. Willie saw things differently. For him, the Black family was a great achievement, given the long history of slavery and discrimination.

“The story of the Black family in the United States,” he writes, “must be seen as a miracle move from nothing to something.” (Later editions of the book were co-authored by Richard J. Reddick.)

The problems that others considered endemic were, for Dr. Willie, the result of continued discrimination and social inequality – a view that over the following decades was embraced by many sociologists and policy makers.

A life member of the Episcopal Church, Dr. Willie built what amounted to a second career as a lay Church official. In 1970 he was elected Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Church Legislature. Most people, including Dr. Willie himself, expected him to eventually become the first black Speaker of the House of Representatives.

But he proved to be more progressive than many of his colleagues. In 1974, he helped break down the church’s gender barrier by giving the sermon at the ordination of 11 women to the priesthood. The service drew a rebuke from the House of Bishops, the upper house of the church, which three weeks later voted overwhelmingly to invalidate the ordination of women.

Dr. Willie immediately resigned from the legislature in protest.

“I could not act like Pilate and do what I knew was wrong,” he explained in a 1976 letter. “If the Episcopal Church did not change its sexist ways, I had to resign as officer of the church because I could no longer carry out procedures that I knew were wrong and sinful.”

That same year, the church reversed its position, and from 1977 allowed women to join the priesthood. Dr Willie remained in the church and, at a meeting in 2015, the House of Representatives honored him with a service medal and a standing ovation.

Charles Green Willie was born on December 8, 1927 in Dallas. Both of his grandfathers were born into slavery. His father, Louis, worked as a railroad porter, a job that paid poorly and took him away from home for long periods of time, but was also stable and secure, protected by one of the few black-run unions , the Brotherhood of Sleeping Cars. Porters.

His mother, Carrie (Sykes) Willie, was among the first black women to graduate from college in Texas. She earned a teaching degree from Wiley College in Marshall, but couldn’t find work when Charles was young – under Depression-era rules, married women often couldn’t get jobs if their husband already had one.

Charles and his four siblings traveled to school by streetcar, forced to move out back under the city’s Jim Crow laws – an experience of racial navigation he later recalled as strange, given of his future as a sociologist.

“I studied most of the cities I lived in, including Boston and Syracuse,” he said in a 1989 oral history. “But I didn’t know much about Dallas because my moving to Dallas was in separate lanes. There were black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, and black people rarely entered white neighborhoods.

He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he befriended Martin Luther King Jr., another sociology student and member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He graduated in 1948 and earned a master’s degree, also in sociology, the following year from Atlanta University, now known as Clark Atlanta University.

While studying for a doctorate in sociology at Syracuse University, he joined the choir of a local Episcopal church. There he met Mary Sue Conklin; they married in 1962.

Besides his daughter and his wife, he is survived by his sister, Mary Gauthier; his sons, James and Martin; and three grandchildren.

After earning his doctorate in 1957, Dr. Willie taught at Syracuse for 17 years – he was the first black to hold a tenure there – and took over as head of the department in 1967. He brought Dr. King to the school to speak twice, in 1961 and 1965.

When Dr. Willie retired in 1999, some of his students, knowing of his penchant for collecting images of Noah’s Ark, presented him with a hand-carved model. Thanking them, he explained the reasoning behind his unusual hobby.

“The world has been swept away except for the survivors of the ark”,
he told them. “So I use the ark as a way to demonstrate diversity. Noah brought on board not just his family but his whole family, even those uncles or cousins ​​you never talk about. The world that exists today is such because people of all kinds have populated it.