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III At the University of California, Berkeley, 1935-1939

Fascination with Airplanes: Hopes for an Engineering Career

Morris

Was it the sports at Cal that made you want to go there?


Williams

No. I wanted to go to college. In fact, sports wasn't in it. In other words, I knew I could run. I didn't know how good I was. I wanted to get that degree. Okay, fine. I signed up—.


Morris

If you come in with your freshman grades in order, you come in as a sophomore.


Williams

Sure. I signed up. Brutus didn't even know I was there. How could I announce myself. I was a nobody. I was just another guy who wanted to go to Cal. Later on, I went out for track. But I didn't go there for that. Nobody recruited me or anything. I was pretty good in junior college. I won the conference. Junior college conference. I won that but that's nothing like the Super Bowl or anything. That's nothing big.


Morris

I wondered if the people who were in sports at Cal checked out the prep sports?


Williams

No. No one approached me and I didn't care because I was going to play in the physics lab.


Morris

Were you still headed toward engineering?


Williams

Oh, yes. Here's the story. I went to the counselor; I can give you the guy's name. He said, "What do you want to be?" I said, "I want to be a mechanical engineer." "Look. You're crazy. Why don't you be a preacher? Why don't you be a real estate man." "What do you mean?" "You ain't going to get a job." "Sign me up for that, will you please." Later on when you're a senior, you go see the counselor and he said, "I'll tell you what. I'm going to arrange for you to get an interview with


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General Motors, General Electric, Lockheed and so forth and let them tell you the same thing."


Morris

This is the same counselor?


Williams

Same counselor. I remember his goddamned name. Kelsey van Every.


Morris

That's a pretty fancy name.


Williams

Yes, right. In fact, I went to high school with his son. Anyway, the point was that that was what I wanted to do because I was fascinated with airplanes. I was an airplane nut. I used to make model planes. In fact, I have an article in there. I won a prize in the Oakland Tribune model airplane contest.


Morris

I saw that in the scrapbook. That's neat.


Williams

So I decided I was going to make it. I didn't burn up the course in the grades. I got a few A's and B's in some of the courses. In fact, I did okay. I was satisfied with my progress. For instance, you have to keep up your grades to be in sports. I was never in jeopardy.

Brutus as a coach knew every guy on the team and he knew everybody's grades. He could tell you what you got in differential calculus. He could tell me I got a B- in that course. "How are you doing in physics?" He was our father figure, not only to the track guys but to all the guys. He was that type of man.


Discrimination in Employment and Athletics

Morris

So what was this business about, "You had better be a preacher or real estate salesman?"


Williams

The counselor said that if you want to go to college, pick out something that you can be.


Morris

Because a black guy wouldn't get hired as an engineer?


Williams

Right. What the hell. What kind of engineer are you going to be. Let me tell you about this. One thing in the back of my mind. One summer I had a job at the water company cutting weeds. Up there around the Kensington reservoir.



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Morris

Where Tilden Park is now?


Williams

And at the other one in East Oakland. They had a couple of these places where the water is cleaned. They filter it through the filter plants. It was a lot of fun working there. There were settling ponds when the water came in from the Sierras. Sometimes there'd be trout in there that came in through the pipes. I was hoping—they hire engineers, this would be a nice company to work with. I talked to the personnel guy but—you know. He gave me the same arguments. East Bay MUD [Municipal Utility District], I bet they've got a thousand niggers down there working. [laughter] Now they'd really want to hire you—a black and an engineer.


Morris

Since affirmative action.


Williams

I guess so. Lionel Wilson, the mayor, he and I were classmates.


Morris

That's right.


Williams

In those days there weren't any Negro engineers, although Lee Purnell, who was ahead of me at Cal, was an engineer, somewhere in Southern California, I think. The thing is that you might consider—.


Morris

That's part of what the NAACP was pushing for in the thirties, opening up jobs.


Williams

My main thing I can say about Cal, of course, there wasn't any big push. They didn't have any placement program to help, not blacks, not anybody. No graduate student placement to help you find a job.


Morris

But there didn't seem to be any problem of getting into Cal or taking a full course—.


Williams

Oh, no. There were a lot of black kids going to Cal.


Morris

Really?


Williams

Oh, sure. A lot of them.


Morris

How many, would you say, when you were there?


Williams

Probably thirty or forty. Maybe more. I don't know. I knew them all. I knew some of them who weren't black.


Morris

They passed?



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Williams

Yes. You've got it. In fact, let me tell you something else. The whole time when I came along, in certain sports they didn't play black athletes. You never heard of a black basketball player in the Pacific Coast Conference. You know who the first one was? Jackie Robinson, for UCLA. First one. In fact, USC [University of Southern California], I hate those people. They would recruit black athletes and they wouldn't play them. They would redshirt them even though the guy was a damn good player.


Morris

That's bad.


Williams

That's bad. That's the way they did it. They had a bunch of black athletes or guys whom you would think they didn't want to play.


Morris

Why did they recruit them if they were going to redshirt them?


Williams

So they wouldn't go to UCLA or Cal; so they didn't have to play against them.


Morris

You hear some strange things about USC.


Williams

That's the way it is. Damn right. A guy down there, Slick Saki, a Japanese guy, hell of a football player. USC recruited him and wouldn't let him play.


Morris

What about basketball?


Williams

Just the coaches. Vesta, my wife [Vesta Young Williams], she went to [University of] Illinois. The same thing there in the Big Ten, in the Ivy League, or any of the big schools. You never heard of any black basketball players. Now in this day and age, there is no school where there are no black basketball players. Christ, they've got them in Georgia—.

Of course, I might have ended up in Stanford. My coach when I was at San Mateo, Tex Byrd, he was a Stanford man and a hell of a nice guy. Really interested in us as people. He said, "Archie, if you were white, I could get you into Stanford just like that. Get you a scholarship." In fact, my teammates, five of them from the San Mateo team went right to Stanford. They gave them a red uniform, gave them a scholarship and saw they got along okay.


Morris

So Stanford was keeping an eye on what was going on at schools around.


Williams

Stanford was close by. Look at Stanford, they didn't have any black athletes. The only black guys at Stanford were washing


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dishes in the frat houses. I didn't know anybody who went to Stanford, any black people. The word was that you couldn't even get into Stanford. I don't know. I wouldn't want—. The hell with them redskins.[1]


Morris

That would make it kind of tough.


Williams

I never got beat by one of those guys either. [laughter]


Morris

What did it take to open up college sports? When did Jackie Robinson—?


Williams

Late thirties. He was playing on a football team in 1938, Jackie, Kenny Washington, and those guys. Have you ever seen a guy in a movie called Woodrow Stroud? He's a big black guy. He was in The Magnificent Seven. Big old strong, strapping guy. He was on the team with Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson's brother was on the Olympic team with me.

It was Branch Rickey, I heard, who made things work out for Jackie in big league baseball. Jackie Robinson was playing in the black league, and after the regular season, they'd go barnstorm around the country and beat the tar out of the white guys.

Rickey knew there were lots of good black athletes. He decided Jackie Robinson was a "good nigger" who could make it and take it from the other players. That figured, because he had gone to Pasadena High School; his mom or dad worked in Pasadena, so he had been brought up in a white town. You know, he was everything in sports—he could of made it in football or track as a pro, as well as in baseball. He used to beat up on the guys on his own track team to show them he could take it.

Anyhow, I was told that Rickey used to tell him what to say and how to act around the white guys. He took him to Canada first, to Montreal, to get him experience and get him ready for the big leagues. You know, even more than Jesse Owens, Robinson was the athlete of the century. Paul Robeson was a good athlete too, even before he became a famous singer. There were lots of good black athletes around L.A.


Morris

There is a report that Clint Evans [UC baseball coach] was not happy about having black guys on his teams.



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Williams

Probably not. Nibs Price [basketball coach] was probably the same way. In fact, I don't know if anybody went out for it. Actually, in those days, Brutus was an exception. For anybody, he was an exception. It was an old boys' club. That's how they controlled it.


Morris

Each other and the teams?


Williams

Sure. In other words, they said, "It's a gentlemen's agreement. We won't play no jungle bunnies." [laughter] I knew Clint okay. His office was next to Brutus'. I was friendly with him. I never thought about that. Nibs was the same way. In fact, Nibs had a black player he didn't know about. It was a hell of a joke, a guy named Thurston Davis. He was a real light-skinned guy. He actually looked like a German. He had real yellow hair, kind of kinky hair. If you put him in with a bunch of blacks, you would buy it. But with white kids, he looked like a white kid. He was a star player on the team. All of us knew about it and we never said anything. He didn't know that we knew. But he played on the team back in 1938 or 1939. Thurston Davis.


Morris

Did he grow up around the Bay Area?


Williams

No, he was from L.A. I think.


Morris

But the word came along with him?


Williams

Yes. He came from the L.A. and the guys down there said, "Nigger. He's a Nigger kid. But we don't care. Let him get away with it. We've got a good joke going."


Morris

A good joke on the white folk?


Williams

Sure. That's right. But that's the way it was. Swimming—. Well, none of us went out for swimming or golf or anything. I'm not bitter about the thing because the main thing was I got in. The main reason: I saw that Companile and I wanted to go to that goddamned school. I made it and I got my degree.


Morris

Your grades held up even though you were in all those sports.


Williams

Damn right. I got through and passed. In fact, the guy from Westinghouse said, "You've got a nice record here. Don't call us, we'll call you."



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Fall 1935 Track Season; Coach Brutus Hamilton

Morris

Oh, my. Let's come back to sports. When did you come into contact with Brutus?


Williams

I went out for what they call fall track. Track season is spring. I went out for fall track. I knew some of the guys because some of them were from junior college.


Morris

From San Mateo?


Williams

Yes, and a couple of guys from Sacramento. Tom Moore, his picture is in here. I think there was one from Marin. Of course, there was a regular guide when you went out. I started working out, started running and started beating them. That's it.


Morris

Somebody notices when you win.


Williams

The guys you are beating notice you. "Where the hell that Nigger come from?" Well, I got better. Brutus worked hard with me, gave me more exercises, gave me coaching and all, and he just made me feel good. As I said, he showed a lot of interest in what I was doing, other than running track.


Morris

So his idea was the whole student, not just your sport.


Williams

Oh, yes. We were here to get an education. He was that way with a lot of guys. He got mad at some of the guys, not because they were flunking off the team, but they were just screwing off. Nowadays, they have what they call recruiting.

[Tape Interruption]##

I got started when I was in junior college down at San Mateo.


Morris

You got in the habit of staying in training.


Williams

Actually, you got competition. In high school, you don't have much competition. You have competition but you're not pushing it to the limit. You get in junior college, you're sort of halfway between high school and college. Some of the junior college guys are just barely at that level. Sometimes at the track meets that you have, you do compete against the college guys. They have open meets. Anybody can be in it. Every now and then you run up against a real good runner, a good athlete. In fact, our junior college league was a pretty tough league because most of the guys from the junior college went on to


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because most of the guys from the junior college went on to another college. They went on to USC, they went on to Stanford—.


Morris

It really worked the way junior college was set up to do, to feed academically into the university.


Williams

Exactly. I never would have gotten into Cal if it hadn't been for that. It's tough to take those courses, the courses I took in junior college. If I took those at Cal, I would be competing against a bunch of hot-shot high school seniors and I would have been out of my league. But I think everybody I was with in junior college was in my same category. Some of those guys—.


Morris

—were taking a second shot at it?


Williams

A second shot. Of course, some of them were good students for whom junior college was cheap. In other words, if you lived in Burlingame, San Mateo, and Palo Alto—a lot of those kids down there come from pretty well-off families. You've heard of Woodside, haven't you?


Morris

That's a pretty classy area down there.


Williams

[Makes whooshing sound] Some of those kids were from Woodside. They could go to Stanford just like nothing; money didn't mean a thing. They drove to school in cars. Some of those guys could go ahead and just start at Cal if they wanted to, or start at Stanford.

Anyway, the point is that's where I kind of got started. I had a chance to run. In junior college, we would compete against the Cal freshman and Stanford freshman, the lowerclassmen. You had an idea how to rate yourself. How well you would do against those guys would tell you how you would do later on.


Morris

How much time did you spend training and working out with the team?


Williams

In those days, you worked out every afternoon from 3:00 until 5:00. In fact, in San Mateo, we didn't have a track. The JC in San Mateo was an old high school in the middle of town. They didn't have any sports facilities. They had a gym. The baseball team would go down to city park to play baseball. We had to ride the bus up to Burlingame High School to run and practice track, which is five miles away. When we got back from there, we never got a hot shower. All the baseball players used up all the hot water.



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Morris

Oh, dear.


Williams

So that was one of the things. We were a bunch of kids; we didn't care. I went there for a year and a half. I started there in the spring of 1934. The next season was 1935. I started Cal in the fall of 1935. I started as a sophomore.


Morris

The fall of 1935?


Williams

That's right.