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An Interview with Dr. Blake

An Interview with Dr. Blake

Walla Walla University’s First Black Professor 

By Matthew Peinado 

In celebration of Black History month, The Collegian spoke with Dr. Donald Blake, Walla Walla University’s first Black professor. Dr. Blake shared memories from his young life, undergraduate education, time in service, and time as a professor at WWU amongst other things. The following is an edited transcript of the interview for clarity.  

Q: Could you introduce yourself? 

Dr. Blake: My name is Donald F. Blake. I am a retired professor, corporate executive, civil rights activist, consultant, scientist, and most of all, disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Q: Could you share a bit about your early life? 

Dr. Blake: Next month, I’ll be 90 years old. I am a child of the depression. For me to get where I am today, was a major journey that could not have happened without major intervention the lives of my parents, siblings, and myself. 

I was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, which is a suburb of New York City. I lived in a very poor but very sophisticated ghetto. I don’t mean the word ghetto in the negative sense. It was a small enclave of African Americans. We didn’t know that we were poor until a social worker told us that we were, but we had the necessities of life. In my household, I was told I would be going to college before I could spell the word.  

After graduating Northeastern Adventist Academy, I went to Oakwood College. For many years, if a Black student somehow inadvertently showed up at Walla Walla’s campus, they would be given a one way bus ticket to Oakwood. So I did my undergraduate work at Oakwood 1949 to 1953 and graduated with a degree in biology and minoring in chemistry.  

Q: What did you do next? 

Dr. Blake: Well, I wanted to go to medical school but the quality of my education wasn’t quite strong enough for me to get into medical school so I was given provisional admittance for a five-year program at Yeshiva University’s medical school in New York City.  

In those days, 1953, the Korean war was still very much on the mind of all Americans. If you were healthy and 18 years old, you were drafted for military service. I got a deferment for three years while I was in college. When I graduated and couldn’t go directly to graduate school, I looked for a job but that was virtually impossible. The first question you would get asked when looking for a job was, “What is your draft classification?” If you were 1A, which meant you were ready and right for military service, no one would hire you because they knew you wouldn’t stay very long. I finally got a job working as a shipping clerk, shipping radio for about 90 cents an hour, with a degree in biology.  

I finally got drafted in November of 1953. After four months of basic training, I was sent to Korea as a combat infantry medic with a non-combatant classification. As an Adventist, I chose not to carry a weapon. I did two years under combat conditions and went to graduate school.  

I was discharged on a Monday and started my graduate education at New York University the next Monday. That wasn’t a successful transition because I wasn’t mentally or psychologically ready to do graduate school. I dropped out and worked that year and in the fall of 1956 went to Michigan state and got a second bachelor’s degree and a master’s. I then went to the University of Rhode Island to do doctoral studies and left in 1962 to teach at Walla Walla. 

Q: What did you teach when you came to Walla Walla? 

Dr. Blake: I taught biology. I had not quite finished my doctorate so I was finishing up my dissertation. That took a while longer to get but I got it in May of 1965. That was the beginning of my professional career. 

Donald Blake Leading Protest

Q: You said earlier that if a young Black collegiate tried to come to Walla Walla, they’d be sent to Oakwood. Did those attitudes still exist? What was it like as a young Black academic teaching at an essentially all white school? 

Dr. Blake: I can describe it in one word—hell. In another way, it was rewarding. I got a lot of grief not openly, but surreptitiously going around behind my back. The students were nice, most of them. Those that were not nice stayed out of my way. 

Because of my background, I taught all of the sciences in the nursing program. I remember one of the first days of classes I was standing at the front of the class while the students were gathering and two young ladies walked in. When they saw me, they both stopped dead in their tracks. One slowly took her seat. The other walked back out. The one that left went to the chairman of the department and told him that she wouldn’t take a class from a Black man. The chairman told her I was the only one teaching the course and she needed it.  

While many students accepted me, there was an element in the faculty that strongly opposed my being there. They never confronted me openly but people would tell me. In fact, one of the men who was most opposed to me didn’t let his opposition become known to me publicly until I got ready to buy a home in College Place. His wife ended up circulating a petition to stop me from buying a home that was a block away from theirs.  

I continued to catch hell from the faculty. One of the largest buildings and one program that Walla Walla has are named after two of the men that gave me the most grief because they didn’t like a Black man teaching there. They didn’t feel I was worthy of teaching there. 

We all sat in church every Sabbath. We sang the same hymns. We sang the same prayers.  

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In fact, those two men served as elders. I, being much younger, served as a deacon. Every second Sabbath, I would serve Sabbath school. One Sabbath, I told the class how I felt getting back to the states from Korea. When we could see the shore, we all rushed to the side of the ship to see America. Most of us cried. I shared that Sabbath how we were all glad to be back home. I knew that I was coming back to the status of a second class citizen but all I could be was glad that I was back home. Many of them took umbrage with that and called me unpatriotic.  

Q: Why did you leave Walla Walla? 

Dr. Blake: I ultimately left Walla Walla not because I was unhappy with my work, but because I saw my three children being warped. My children had no recognition of the fact that they were African American. Except for my wife, their auntie, and myself, they didn’t see any.  

I left Walla Walla in 1967 to do a postdoctoral fellowship program at Ohio State University in Columbus. Earlier that spring, my wife said to me “Honey, I think we need to think about getting out of here, because our children don’t know who they are.” I went on sabbatical from Walla Walla and we left for Columbus.  

One afternoon, we were driving through the Black neighborhood there. We drove past a swimming pool just full of Black children having a ball. My baby daughter saw the children in the pool and said to me, “Daddy, look at all of those colored children in the pool. I don’t like them.” 

My wife looked at me and I looked at her. We had a lovely afternoon and dinner. As we got in bed I told my wife I was leaving Walla Walla.  

Q: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for young Black students at Walla Walla or in higher education as a whole? 

Dr. Blake: You’ve got to keep on keepin’ on. You can’t be discouraged by the things around you, you just have to keep going.  

Sir Isaac Watts, the great English hymn writer, was not a very handsome man. The history books described him as a short, squat, ugly man. It’s said that when he met asked, “Is this the great Sir Watts I’ve heard so much about?” Watts replied by saying “Were I so tall to reach the pole, or grasp the ocean with my span, I must be measured by my soul, the mind’s a standard of the man.” 

The mind is the measure of the man. You can’t measure me by the color of my skin or the texture of my hair. As the old spiritual says, keep your hand on the plow and hold on. You can achieve if you try. [1] 

References 

  1. Interview with Dr. Donald Blake, 2/20/2022.
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