As St. Paul’s first black City Council member, Bill Wilson lived and preached the message of racial equality, and for years he was a fixture at events commemorating the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He also kept an eye out for the kids, and so on a cold day in January 1992 outside the State Capitol, Wilson, then the council’s president, could not help but point to the young people gathered near the stage.
“What a beautiful, beautiful representation of the dream,” he told the crowd. “Let us make their paths a little clearer.”
Wilson, who went on to found Higher Ground Academy, an acclaimed K-12 charter school in St. Paul known for “beating the odds,” died Saturday after being hospitalized with a blood clot in his chest. He was 79.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, himself a trailblazer for capturing the office that eluded Wilson, cited his influence.
“Former City Council President Bill Wilson literally spent his entire life in service to others,” Carter said in a statement Sunday. “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. He will be greatly missed.”
With his calm, deliberate manner, Wilson brought style and dignity to the office. His words, carefully chosen, could make a difference in contentious times such as 1990 when some balked at the timing of a gay-rights proposal. Wilson said “now” was the time to deal with human rights, activist Susan Kimberly recalled then.
Joe Nathan, a charter-school advocate and friend of Wilson’s for more than 30 years, said Monday: “Bill’s life was a demonstration of what one humble, positive, persistent person can do to make a huge difference in generations of people.”
A bust of Wilson just outside the council’s third-floor City Hall offices, in fact, reads “Govern With Humility.”
Wilson knew what it was like to struggle.
He grew up in the 1940s in a rural area beyond the blacktop and utility lines of Evansville, Ind. 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.
Bill Wilson and his siblings lived periodically in foster homes and an orphanage before being reunited with their mother. He recalled later being forced to ride on buses for long distances to attend a segregated school.
It was while standing in a high school cafeteria lunch line that Wilson heard a radio report about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and was inspired to write a speech on segregation and injustice. It won a state oratorical contest.
He first came to St. Paul while working a summer job as a railroad porter, and then moved to the city in the early 1960s. Later, Wilson helped found the Inner City Youth League, and in 1980 he was elected to the City Council.
His wife, Willie Mae Wilson, held a high-profile position, too, serving 30 years as president of the storied St. Paul Urban League — known since 1923 as the place to be if you were black and needed training or leads to find work.
As a council member, Wilson fought prostitution and drug activity, and then for four years provided a steady hand as president. Twice he tried to make the jump to the mayor’s office, but he abandoned both bids and ultimately chose not to seek re-election in 1993.
Five years later, he started Higher Ground Academy. A high poverty school, it has been recognized repeatedly in recent years by the Star Tribune for beating the odds in state test scores. The school’s student population is nearly 100% black or African-American, which has put it on the radar of critics who accuse charter schools of fostering segregation.
Wilson, in a 2014 appearance before a state Senate committee, countered that it’s families who decide where the kids go, and charter schools must abide by their wishes. That is far different, he said, than being bused past three white schools like he’d been in Indiana.
This spring, Wilson suffered a stroke, Willie Mae Wilson said. But after stints in rehab, he was back on the job in September and still was there until winter break, working on a special project with the University of Minnesota.
“Bill was a workaholic,” Willie Mae said Monday. “He was planning to be back when school opened again.”