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Dr. Donald Blake’s Legacy Amidst WWU’s Racist Past

Dr. Donald Blake’s Legacy Amidst WWU’s Racist Past

A Look at the Life of WWU’s First Black Professor 

By Ashley Herber  

Dr. Donald Blake was Walla Walla University’s first Black professor, and the way he was treated by his fellow Adventists and colleagues was deeply racist. However, Blake’s bravery in the face of cruelty and his devotion to education and to God paved the way for a better WWU.    

Dr. Donald Blake, WWU’s first Black professor, showed courage amidst racism. Photo by Adventist Review. 

Terrie Aamodt, history professor, recently interviewed Blake, and she sets the scene and explains his story. [1] 

Although the South was known for its racist acts and ideologies during the early and middle 1900s, the Northwest was also extremely racist, and this racism extended to Walla Walla College, now Walla Walla University. [2] 

Seventh-day Adventists in Walla Walla, and in most of the Northwest, were “accustomed to a white racial environment, and they showed little or no inclination to change. And yet the times and the region were indeed changing.” [3] 

In the ‘50s, WWC required students to include a photo with their college application. WWC would then recommend that Black students go to Oakwood College, the predominantly Black Adventist College in Alabama. [4] 

However, when Percy Christian became president of WWC in 1955, he brought a vision of equality and acceptance for Black students. After this vision was implemented, Art Bushnell became WWC’s first Black graduate in 1960. [5] 

Even though the student body was beginning to be integrated, the staff were not. That changed in 1962 when the biology department began looking for a new professor who specialized in vertebrate physiology and entomology. [6] 

This is where Blake steps in. With a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island and specialties in physiology and entomology, Blake was the best candidate for the job. Except for one thing: Blake was Black. [7] 

After a year of searching and turning down all the other applicants, Christian, the biology department chair Harold Coffin, and faculty member Don Rigby had a discussion. [8] 

Coffin and Rigby asked if the board would accept a Black professor, and Christian replied, “‘I think it’s time for us to hire a minority person, a black person, in this school.’” [9] 

Blake was then taken to meet with the WWC Board. One of the board members was actively against hiring Blake. Blake later said that “there were a lot of good SDAs in the Northwest that the good Lord wanted to take to heaven, but [since] they would need to learn to live next to me up there, they needed to get used to living next to me down here.” [10] 

Aamodt said, “The atmosphere was not welcoming. After all of that, he must have been surprised when he was asked at the meeting if he would consider coming to Walla Walla, if asked. He replied that he had promised the Lord to take the first offer he received, as he had a family to care for.” [11] 

Blake was very well liked by his students at WWC. Aamodt said, “He had a wonderful singing voice, had an outgoing personality, and students invited him to be the MC at their receptions. He was very involved with student activities.” [12] 

The problem was with the faculty, many of whom were Adventists, neighbors, and Blake’s fellow colleagues. When Blake tried to buy a house in College Place, many of these people started a petition to keep it from happening, until Pete Wolfswinkel, head of the college motor pool, lectured them to stop. [13] 

Terrie Aamodt interviews Dr. Blake about his time at WWU. Photo by Ashley Herber 

Many of Blake’s colleagues were concerned that he would participate in the civil rights movement. Aamodt explained that for many years, Adventists did not want to be associated with anything that could be considered unpatriotic or anything that “pushed the envelope,” including the civil rights movement and, during the Vietnam war, anti-war protests. [14] 

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Blake, however, did participate in a protest march organized by Whitman College in response to the killing of a Black Alabama minister. Not only did he participate, but he was one of the speakers and he led in the freedom songs. Only one other faculty member went with Blake, and there are no records of any students from WWC who participated in this march. The Collegian made no mention of it at the time. [15] 

According to the Whitman newspaper, Blake “reminded the listeners that concern for civil rights was not an end in itself but required a commitment of action. Blake reminded the audience that discrimination is not a unique Southern characteristic and that its subtle forms exist in Walla Walla as well as throughout the North. Blake led the audience in ‘We Shall Overcome’ as four-hundred joined hands.” [16] 

There was one faculty member who so strongly opposed Blake’s involvement in the march that he confronted Rigby about it, but Rigby fully supported Blake. Other people were not so calm. Blake had bricks thrown through his window, was repeatedly harassed, and even had to have the police escort his son to kindergarten. [17] 

Aamodt explains that Adventists “were so accustomed to the way things had always been, and they were so afraid of what might happen if anything changed. Issues differ, but dealing with the new, the unexpected, is still painful, isn’t it?” [18] 

Blake worked at WWC from 1962-1968, and although he visited WWU in August of 2018, he is now retired and lives in Huntsville, Alabama. Because of his employment at WWC, more Black students felt comfortable attending, and that started a gradual increase in Black students and faculty at WWC. In 2016, WWU’s Donald Blake center for the study of race, ethnicity, and diversity was created in his name. [19] 

WWU has both been haunted by and grown from Blake’s employment here. Although the racism of the WWC faculty and members of the Adventist church is sad, it is heartening to know that there were people, like Christian and Rigby, who stood up for Blake and the Black community. Blake’s bravery and kindness created a legacy that still affects WWU today. We as Adventists and as the WWU community must take this lesson from Blake: it is important to challenge the status quo, to actively fight for equality, and to show Christ’s kindness to all. [20] 

Citations  

1-20. Interview with Terrie Aamodt, 2/10/2021. 

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