Charles Vert Willie, 94, Dies; Studied, and Defended, Racial Diversity

Charles Vert Willie, a sociologist whose work reshaped our understanding of school integration and Black family life, and whose stand against sexism in the Episcopal Church paved the way for the ordination of women priests, died on Jan. 11 at his home in Brighton, Mass. He was 94.

His daughter, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, confirmed the death.

Dr. Willie, who taught at Syracuse University and later at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, referred to himself as an applied sociologist — someone who not only studied social problems but also offered ways to solve them.

He arrived at Harvard in 1974, and soon after began advising the city of Boston in its efforts to integrate its public schools. Dr. Willie was an advocate of busing students into different school districts to achieve racial balance, but he recognized that the process generated an intense backlash from many white parents that threatened to undermine its goals.

By the late 1980s, he and a graduate assistant, Michael Alves, had devised a new system, which they called controlled choice. The city’s elementary schools would no longer be filled based on geographic proximity; instead, parents would list their top three choices. In most cases, they would get their first choice, as long as that school maintained a racial balance close to that of the city overall.

The plan was a success. Not only did it better integrate the schools; by relying on parental opinions, it also revealed those schools that needed improvement, allowing the city to refocus its resources to help them. Over the next decade, Dr. Willie and Mr. Alves helped dozens of school districts around the country to implement the controlled-choice model.

Dr. Willie’s scholarship was similarly influential.

In a book first published in 1976, Dr. Willie pushed back against the idea that social problems in the Black community, including low marriage rates, were the result of deep-rooted pathologies going back to the time of slavery.

His 1976 book, “A New Look at Black Families,” pushed back against the conventional wisdom of the 1960s, promoted by scholars like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which held that social problems in the Black community, including low marriage rates, were the result of deep-rooted pathologies going back to the time of slavery.

Dr. Willie saw things differently. To him, the Black family was a great success story, given the long history of slavery and discrimination.

“The history of the Black family in the United States,” he wrote, “should be viewed as a miracle movement from nothing to something.” (Later editions of the book were co-written by Richard J. Reddick.)

The problems that others deemed endemic were, to Dr. Willie, the result of ongoing discrimination and social inequities — a view that, in subsequent decades, has come to be held by many sociologists and policymakers.

A lifelong member of the Episcopal Church, Dr. Willie built what amounted to a second career as a lay church official. In 1970 he was elected vice president of the House of Deputies, the lower chamber in the church’s legislature. Most people, including Dr. Willie himself, expected him to eventually become the House of Deputies’ first Black president.

But he proved more progressive than many of his colleagues. In 1974 he helped break the church’s gender barrier by giving the sermon at the ordination of 11 women to the priesthood. The service drew a rebuke from the House of Bishops, the church’s upper chamber, which three weeks later voted overwhelmingly to invalidate the women’s ordination.

Dr. Willie immediately resigned from the legislature in protest.

“I could not act like Pilate and do what I knew was wrong,” he explained in a 1976 letter. “If the Episcopal Church would not change its sexist ways, I had to resign as an officer of the church for I could no longer enforce procedures which I knew were evil and sinful.”

That same year, the church reversed its position, and starting in 1977 it allowed women to join the priesthood. Dr. Willie remained in the church, and at a 2015 meeting the House of Deputies honored him with a medal of service, and a standing ovation.

Dr. Willie in 1990. He taught at Syracuse University and later at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.Credit…Martha Stewart

Charles Vert Willie was born on Dec. 8, 1927, in Dallas. Both his grandfathers had been born into slavery. His father, Louis, worked as a railroad porter, a job that paid poorly and kept him away from home for long periods, but that was also stable and secure, protected by one of the few Black-led unions, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

His mother, Carrie (Sykes) Willie, was among the first Black women to graduate from college in Texas. She received a degree in teaching from Wiley College in Marshall, but she was unable to find work when Charles was young — under Depression-era rules, married women often could not take a job if their husbands already had one.

Charles and his four siblings rode streetcars to school, forced to move to the back under the city’s Jim Crow laws — an experience in racial navigation that he later recalled as strange, given his future as a sociologist.

“I have studied most of the cities in which I have lived, including Boston and Syracuse,” he said in a 1989 oral history. “But I didn’t know very much about Dallas because my movement in Dallas was in segregated corridors. There were Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, and Blacks seldom entered white neighborhoods.”

He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he befriended Martin Luther King Jr., a fellow sociology major and member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He graduated in 1948 and received a master’s degree, also in sociology, the next year from Atlanta University, today known as Clark Atlanta University.

While studying for a doctoral degree in sociology at Syracuse University, he joined the choir at a local Episcopal church. There he met Mary Sue Conklin; they married in 1962.

Along with his daughter and his wife, he is survived by his sister, Mary Gauthier; his sons, James and Martin; and three grandchildren.

After receiving his doctorate in 1957, Dr. Willie taught at Syracuse for 17 years — he was the first Black person to achieve tenure there — and took over as department chairman in 1967. He brought Dr. King to the school to speak twice, in 1961 and 1965.

When Dr. Willie retired in 1999, some of his students, knowing his penchant for collecting images of Noah’s Ark, presented him with a hand-carved model. Thanking them, he explained the reasoning behind his unusual hobby.

“The world was washed away except for the ark survivors,”
he told them. “So I use the ark as a way of demonstrating diversity. Noah brought aboard not only his family but all of his family, even those uncles or cousins you never talk about. The world that exists today is such because people of all sorts of conditions peopled it.”

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