Earth Notes: The Legacy Of W.C. Riles

Feb 10, 2021

The city of Flagstaff recently changed the name of a downtown street from that of Louis Agassiz, a 19th century scientist and racist, to Wilson C. Riles, the first Black student to enroll in the Arizona State Teachers College, which would eventually become Northern Arizona University.

File image: Wilson Camanza Riles, 1917-1999
Credit Cline Library, NAU.PH.85.3.14.174

Riles’ was originally from Louisiana and was orphaned at a young age. He came to Flagstaff in the mid-1930’s with his adoptive family so they could work at the sawmill. After graduating from NAU, Riles became a school principal in Flagstaff, where he endured segregation and institutionalized racism. He fought as a civil rights activist focusing on desegregating the city’s schools – a goal he and others achieved in 1953.

Riles later worked for the California State Department of Education and was elected state superintendent of public instruction – the first Black person ever elected to an executive position in California’s state government. He eventually received nine honorary doctorates and chaired an urban education task force at the request of then-President Richard Nixon.

One of Riles’ most lasting contributions is the endowment he established at NAU to help disadvantaged youth attend college. A building on campus bears his name, a reminder of his fight for equality, justice and education. In an interview from 1996, three years before his death, Riles said, "I feel that in America, in the United States, we are in a position, our greatest contribution is to be able to demonstrate that people of whatever race, ethnicity, religion, can live together in respect and harmony. And if we can demonstrate that, that will be our great contribution to the world."