Nothing stopped Bill Wilson. From the time he was bused past three schools because he was African American, to the day he was told it was “not his turn” to run for city council, to the more than 20 years he spent founding and then directing what later became one of Minnesota’s honored public schools, Bill Wilson did not just challenge racism, bigotry and oppression. He overcame.
Bill Wilson was the first African American elected to St. Paul, Minnesota’s, City Council and the first elected to be City Council president.
Despite the fact that when he initially ran in 1980 in “liberal” Minnesota, the White Democratic party establishment told him that “he would have to wait.” He didn’t. He won and then won re-election. He was later named Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights.
Bill worked tirelessly to expand opportunities for low income and people of color. As a newspaper reporter explained, when Bill was a child, “his father, John Wilson, worked in an Ohio River shipyard, and managed to save enough to buy a house and a car but was blinded by sparks from a welder’s torch. Unable to support them, John left his wife and three children so they could get public assistance. [As a result,] Bill, and his siblings, lived periodically in foster homes and an orphanage before being reunited with their mother.”
Perhaps one of the most impactful moments of Bill’s life was being bused past three all-White schools to attend a segregated school every day. Because of this experience, Bill believed people deserved new school options, especially those from low-income and families of color—and he didn’t just talk about empowering families, he did it.
Bill founded Higher Ground (charter) Academy (HGA) which is the only public school district or charter, that was named five years in a row as a “beat the odds” school, by Minnesota’s largest daily newspaper. More than 90% of its students are African American and from low-income families.
In testimony before a Minnesota State Senate Committee in 2014, Bill explained that children “have no choice in the circumstances when entering this world, but through quality education they can in many cases shape, mold and determine their future.”
He was a relentless collaborator. For example, he helped create a mentoring program for HGA students with the University of Minnesota Medical School. Years ago, he worked with the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to develop new approaches to attracting students of color into teaching. Sadly, local foundations wouldn’t support it.
Bill helped develop another proposal to increase the diversity of teachers. Talking with students, Bill found that most were not interested in teaching. So, he suggested internships and social media campaigns to attract students. Despite its professed priority for increasing diversity, a local foundation rejected the proposal.
But Bill found a way. He hired many HGA graduates while they were in college. Today more than 20 HGA grads work at the school.
Bill wasn’t bitter. “We’ll find a way” was of his core beliefs.
Because of a substantial waiting list, Higher Ground opened a second campus in October 2019. The building bears his name. Fortunately, he lived to participate in this event, before passing in late December.
Melvin Carter III, St. Paul’s first African American mayor, wrote, “Former City Council President Bill Wilson literally spent his entire life in service to others. I’ve leaned on him for years as both a mentor and confidante, and his public service paved the way for me in more ways than one.”
We’ll make much more progress if we remember both the man and his messages.