Sociologist, principal lecturer
Albert Black's parents taught him about hard work and responsibility when he was very young, and he took their lessons to heart. He not only worked throughout his childhood to help support his family, but he worked persistently to gain a higher education when it often seemed impossible that he would succeed. When he finally did earn his doctorate and become a university lecturer, he took his responsibilities as a teacher very seriously. He has consistently placed more value on being an attentive and caring teacher than on advancing his career, and in addition has taken on the responsibility of making the academic journey less difficult for African-American students at all levels. In university classes with names like "Race Relations" and "Afro-American Political Thought," Black has explored social issues which have often been overlooked or avoided within largely white institutions. Outside of class, he has taught sociology in a different way, working in the community and in public schools to help solve the problems that often prevent poor students and students of color from doing well in school.
Encouraged Early to Get an Education
Albert Wesley Black, Jr., was born in Chicago on April 25, 1939. His father, Albert Wesley Black, Sr., had run away from his Missouri home at the age of fourteen and ended up in Detroit, Michigan. A few years later he met Grace Green, who had left her parents' farm in South Carolina to live with her aunt in the big city of Detroit. Albert and Grace married and had four children, two boys and two girls. Albert Senior supported his family by working two jobs. During the day, he was a maintenance worker for Children's Hospital, while in the evenings he ran a janitorial business. From an early age, Albert Junior and his brother worked with their father every evening cleaning office buildings. When the boys complained about scrubbing toilets, their father gave them the same answer so often that it became a private joke between them: "If you don't like cleaning the white man's toilets, get an education." Though they laughed, both boys followed their father's advice.
However, even with Albert Senior's two jobs, Grace Black's work as a beautician, and the help of the children, the Blacks knew real poverty. Winters are icy cold in Detroit, and when there was not enough money to pay for the gas heat, the water froze in the toilets and the children slept in their coats. The lack of money caused stress within the family, simply because it made life very difficult.
The Black family lived in a working-class neighborhood populated by Polish immigrants and blacks. There was little tension between the two groups, but they lived separately and had very little social contact. Black grew to respect his hardworking immigrant neighbors, whose yards were like immaculate fenced islands within an otherwise close-knit African-American community. Church and family were the most important institutions in young Black's world. His playmates were most often his brother, sisters, and cousins, and each Saturday evening boys and girls alike ironed their best clothes to wear to church on Sunday morning.
Success in High School Led to College
School was another important institution in young Albert Black's life. Detroit schools were racially segregated during the 1950s, and, while most of the students were African American at Black's school, almost all of the teachers were white. He did well in school and in sports, where he played football and ran track. In his senior year, he was elected president of his class, president of student council, and president of the citywide student council. Upon graduation he received many awards and was salutatorian of his class, which means that he had the second-highest grade point average.
Even though he did well in high school, Black did not at first consider college a possibility. No one in his family, or even in his neighborhood, had gone to college. However, he received assistance from an African-American doctor whose office was in one of the buildings he helped his father clean every night. Dr. Collins took an interest in Black's education and helped him obtain a scholarship to the University of Michigan.
The University of Michigan is a high-prestige, and at the time, a largely white, university. The level of skill expected from him both in the classroom and on the athletic field came as something of a shock to Black. Unlike his high school experience, he did not do well. He soon dropped out of athletics to focus all of his energies on his academic studies. Even then, he only managed to get average grades in his pre-medical program.
After graduating from Michigan in 1963, Black got married, started his own family, and went to work as a factory foreman at the Ford Motor Company. The dirty, noisy factory work was made even harder by the fact that the workers he supervised were mostly white immigrants from Eastern Europe or the Southern United States, who were not happy to be working for a black boss. He soon left that job and went to work at Children's Hospital as a diener. Diener comes from the German word for servant and means an assistant who helps with autopsies, or medical examinations of dead bodies.
Became Interested in Sociology
His work as a diener reawakened Black's interest in medicine. He had begun to think that he wanted to be a "social doctor," or sociologist. Sociology is the study of how and why people form societies, and the effect those societies have on the people who live within them. Black's mother-in-law knew a dean at nearby Wayne State University, and with her encouragement and assistance, Black took some extra courses to bring his grades up and was accepted into the master's program in sociology at Wayne State.
As he reached the end of his master's program, Black saw a notice that the University of California at Berkeley was seeking students of color for their doctoral program in sociology. When one of his professors expressed doubt that Black could succeed in a difficult program at an elite school like Berkeley, Black worked even harder to do well in his master's work. He wrote such a good final paper that his professor relented and wrote him a letter of recommendation to Berkeley. In 1967 Black headed for California.
At a Glance...
Born Albert Wesley Black, Jr., on April 25, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan; married Varetta Jones, 1963 (divorced 1975); married Linda Thompson, 1977; children: children: Allison and Angela (first marriage); Alia and Nicole (second marriage). Education: University of Michigan, BS, zoology, 1963; Wayne State University, MA, sociology, 1967; University of California at Berkeley, PhD, sociology, 1976.
Career: California School of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California, Sociology Department, lecturer, 1969-70; University of California at Davis, Sociology Department, lecturer; 1971-2; University of Washington, Sociology Department and Black Studies Department, assistant professor, lecturer, senior lecturer, and principal lecturer, 1973–.
Selected memberships: National Association of Black Sociologists, American Society of Criminology, American Sociological Association.
Selected awards: University of Washington, Distinguished Teaching Award, 1977; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Seattle Alumnae Chapters, "Talented Tenth Award," 1993; Washington Alliance of Black School Educators, Certificate of Appreciation for Distinguished Service on behalf of Children, 1998; University of Washington, Outstanding Public Service Award, 1999; University of Washington, Office of Minority Affairs and Educational Opportunity Programs, Charles E. Odegaard Award, 1999.
Addresses: Office— Department of Sociology, Box 353340, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-3340.
The late 1960s was a time of political protest and social movement in the United States, and Berkeley, California, was a major center of youthful unrest. Within weeks of Black's arrival in California he had joined a Young Socialist Party protest and had been arrested. He managed to convince university authorities that he was a dedicated and responsible young man, however, and continued his studies at Berkeley.
In 1973 Black was offered a job teaching sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Except for a brief period in 1976 when he returned to Berkeley to finish work on his Ph.D., he would remain in Seattle for the rest of his career. He not only became one of the most beloved and awarded teachers on the university campus, but he also took his commitment out into the community, speaking and teaching at countless workshops and public events over the years.
Taught Inside and Outside the Classroom
Black had learned from his own experience how difficult it could be for poor students and students of color to learn and succeed in school. When he did achieve success in the form of a teaching job at a respected university, he did not stop his efforts, but continued to devote a large part of his time to helping and encouraging students and their parents, in the Seattle area and throughout the country. Among his many contributions have been organizing a mentor program in which university students work in high schools assisting younger students, starting a Father's Group at Seattle's Franklin High School to involve fathers in their children's education, and developing programs to help student athletes deal with the special pressures they face in college.
Black has also left his home state to spread his message in other areas of the country. During the mid-1990s, he was contracted to lecture on minority issues for the Detroit Public School System and the Detroit Juvenile Justice System. In 1994, he worked as a consultant for foster care providers in Wayne County, Michigan. He conducted workshops and classes for at-risk youth in Yonkers, New York, Gilroy, California, and Santa Clara County, California. In addition to these, he found time to host a weekly talk show on a Seattle African-American radio station, titled, Community Potpourri: A Conversation with Dr. Al Black, where he discusses a wider range of topics.
Success in academic institutions is often measured in terms of granting an employee "tenure." Tenure is a promise of lifetime employment, granted to a professor by the university where he or she works. When a professor is given tenure, it is not only the guarantee of a job, but also an acknowledgement of excellence in that professor's work. Most colleges and universities grant tenure based not only on a teacher's performance in class, but also on outside work, such as writing and publishing books and articles in his/her field. Because Alfred Black devoted his energies to working directly with students and the community, he did not do the sorts of theoretical research or publish the kind of works that would allow the university to grant him tenure. Black and his supporters argued that educators who dedicate themselves to teaching should be regarded as highly as those who commit their time and energies to research and writing. Though many university officials were sympathetic to Black and admired his work, they could not grant him tenure in the usual way. Instead they gave him the title of "principal lecturer" with the guarantee of employment at the university for the rest of his career.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA), July 12, 2003.
"Albert Black," Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine, http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june99/black.html (March 23, 2005).
"Black's Goal: Better Life for All Children" University Week, http://depts.washington.edu/uweek/archives/1999.06.JUN_03/article15.html (February 25, 2005).
"Black Named Principal Lecturer," University Week, http://admin.urel.washington.edu/uweek/archives/issue/uweek_story_small.asp?id=1220 (March 23, 2005).
"Black Named UW's First Principal Lecturer," A&S Perspectives, http://www.artsci.washington.edu/newsletter/Autumn03/Awards.htm#Black (March 23, 2005).
"Black Parents' Fragile Link to Schools," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/disciplinegap/61941_parents12.shtml (March 23, 2005).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Albert W. Black, Jr., on February 25, 2005.
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