By Professor Jim Casey & Emmalyn Chen
Among the many distinguished alumni of our department, a special place must be reserved for Archie Williams, who as a young black man, arrived at Cal in the fall of 1935, aspiring to be an aeronautical engineer. Gifted with extraordinary athletic ability, this same young man went on to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games in Berlin a year later.
Archie Franklin Williams was born on 1 May 1915 in Oakland, California, to middle-class African American parents. As a youth, he was fascinated by airplanes, and his name first appeared in public when he won several awards in the Oakland Tribune’s Model Airplane Contest, held at Oakland Airport in 1931.
Williams attended University High School in Oakland, where he also ran track. He began his college career at San Mateo Junior College, where he immediately became attracted to mathematics and physics and also ran competitively. He transferred to the University of California as a sophomore in the fall of 1935. In an oral history recorded in 1988, he says: “… I think that it was destined that I go to Cal. I could stand on my front porch on Telegraph Avenue and look at the Campanile at Cal, so I knew what Cal was all about. We used to go up, even before I got out of high school, and sneak into where the track guys were practicing and crawl under the fence and watch the real athletes perform. I was kind of born a Cal man.”
Despite discouragement from a counselor, Archie engaged in his engineering education with great enthusiasm. Additionally, he signed up for track, under the legendary Cal coach, Brutus Hamilton, who quickly recognized Archie’s exceptional athletic talents. During the spring season of 1936, Archie won several races, continually improving upon his time. He won a gold medal for breaking the University of California record for the 440 yard sprint, and shortly thereafter, he set a new world record of 46.1 seconds for the 400 meter race at the NCAA Men’s Track and Field Championships in Chicago. He qualified in July for the Olympics and embarked on an ocean liner from New York City with Jesse Owens and other teammates for the voyage to
The Berlin Olympics were designed on a spectacular scale, with the intention of showcasing the Nazi regime and validating Hitler’s ideas on the superiority of the Aryan race. While German athletes performed well in the Games, the phenomenal speed of Jesse Owens left no doubt about the folly of Hitler’s racial views. Owens won four astonishing events. On Friday, 7 August 1936, Williams ran a magnificent 400 meter race, with a time of 46.5 seconds, longer than his own world record, but short enough to gain the gold.
Williams was welcomed home on 25 September 1936 with a parade to City Hall in Oakland and a noon rally on the steps of Wheeler Hall on campus. He returned to his studies in mechanical engineering. He participated in the 1937 athletic season, but due to a hamstring injury which he suffered in Europe shortly after the Olympic Games, he was not able to match his previous season. In 1937, he campaigned for a position on the student council, making it the first time in the history of the University that a black student had run for office. He lost by a narrow margin. In his senior year, he joined the newly established Civilian Pilot Training Program, which was intended to increase the number of available pilots, in case the U.S. would get involved in the looming war. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in December, 1939.
As a result of widespread discrimination against African-Americans, Williams could not find a job as an engineer. The best he could find was work as a “grease monkey,” servicing small airplanes for a flying school at Oakland Airport. It was here that he learned how to fly and earned his pilot’s license. Again searching for work, his attention was drawn to the Tuskegee Army Flying School, at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. At this time, the armed forces were still segregated. In September 1941, he was hired as an instructor to teach civilian pilots and also some of the first of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Looking back in 1988, he remarked: “it was an experiment…Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was probably the main one behind it… And, of course, there was a lot of opposition, especially in the military, because for some reason they had a bunch of “tests” that they’d given during World War I, which supposedly showed that black people were inferior mentally, they had no courage, and weren’t good enough to fly airplanes.”
The Air Corps sent Williams to study meteorology at UCLA. In 1943, commissioned, he returned to Tuskegee to work as a meteorologist and also as a flight instructor.
It was at Tuskegee that Archie Williams met Vesta Young. As he recalls their romance, “I met Vesta down at Tuskegee and took her for an airplane ride. And, I don’t know… I guess there was something about me that she liked, and there was a lot about her that I liked. So we just went ahead and talked it over, and about two or three months later we were married.” The couple had two children, Archie Williams, Jr., and Carlos K. Williams.
After the war, Williams was involved in setting up a weather station at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio. Subsequently, he studied aeronautical engineering for two years at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, also in Ohio. During the Korean War, Williams served as a weather officer in Japan, and flew on combat missions over North Korea. Later, he and his wife lived in Japan for almost two years.
Williams’ subsequent assignments with the Army Air Forces Weather Service included the Air Defense Command 26th Air Division in New York, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, and March Air Force Base in California. He retired from the Air Force in 1964, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Archie Williams then started a new career. He earned a teaching credential and devoted his unbounded energy to teaching mathematics and computer science. He spent over 20 years at Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County, California. He continued to fly private airplanes until the end of his life and co owned an advertising company, Blue Sky Advertising. At the age of 78, Archie Williams died at home in Fairfax on 24 June 1993, from a heart attack.
We celebrate the accomplishments of this truly remarkable alumnus. His unsuppressible zest for life, as well as his courage and optimism in the face of every obstacle, inspires all of us to emulate his achievements.