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Celebrating Williston School Luminaries: Dr. Phillip Clay

Former MIT Chancellor and Williston School Graduate Dr. Phillip Clay

Williston Middle School in Wilmington marks its 100th anniversary this year.  When it launched in 1866 as Williston Academy, thanks to the efforts of a group of black parents and missionaries, its mission was to provide descendants of slaves a high quality education.  A new facility opened as part of the local public school system in 1915, but Phillip Clay wouldn’t arrive at the all-black Wilmington high school until the early 1960s – when it was still segregated.  

After graduating in 1964, Clay went on to become a Professor of City Planning at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he also served as Chancellor for a decade. 

As he describes it, the civil rights struggles of the 60s were as much a part of his education as literature and math.


PC:  There was a support for civil rights among the teachers.  Obviously, no activities occurred in the school, but they were trying to help us understand the world that was coming.  There was a great confidence that the civil rights movement would be successful, and we were being prepared for leadership in the period when change would come. 

RLH:    You said that they were optimistic about what they were standing on the brink of. 

PC:  Yes... There were teachers who knew the world was changing.  They were part of the effort to change it and their job, their mission was not just to teach us chemistry or math or writing, but to prepare us to go to Chapel Hill or Duke or Harvard or wherever – because they knew that would be the pathway that would help our people.  And they took that very seriously. 

In fact, if you wanted to get a teacher angry with you, all you had to do was to fail to meet their expectations. 

RLH:  What was it like when Williston closed in 1968?  Did the teachers see that as a positive step along the path of civil rights?

PC: Many of the teachers that we had very high confidence in as personally caring for us because they cared for our parents and grandparents before that – most of them – many of them retired.  I mean, they never participated in New Hanover High or Hoggard or other schools.  They were teachers who were in their 50s when they taught me – and 60s – and they soon retired. 

RLH:  And so 1968, then, the closing of Williston, was significant in more ways than just the closure of that facility.  It was really the ending of an era. 

PC:  That’s right.

RLH:  Do you think the teachers who guided you through high school and prepared you for the real world, if they could see where we are now in terms of integration, in so many ways, do you think they would be surprised?

PC:  I think they would have a range of views.  I think they would be very proud of some of the people who graduated from Williston.  I’m absolutely positive about that.  I think they would be disappointed that the people who followed them did not have the same vision or the same level of commitment to students. 

And when I say commitment to students, I really want to be quite emphatic about that.  We weren’t supposed to know it, but there were times when teachers helped students through very difficult home situations.  There were times, I know, when teachers brought clothes for kids and helped to explain hygiene issues and health issues that there was no explanation for at home. 

RLH:  I, of course, found your Wikipedia page, and it identifies you as the highest-ranking black administrator in MIT’s 150-year history.  Do you every get tired of being identified as “black”?  As if that’s part of the accomplishment?  Certainly, from a historical standpoint, I guess it is.  But there are generations now that might bristle at that…

PC:  Well, I never get tired of it.  I am a little self-conscious about it.  But whenever I feel self-conscious and might want to not focus or to resist identification that way, I think about all of the encouragement I got from role models in the times from my earliest memory and how important it was for me.  So I don’t want to do anything, including hide under a basket, or hide my record, that would not make it possible for some young person to see me and feel encouragement. 

So, yes, I do get self-conscious.  Yes, I wish people would stop focusing on it, but I know what the benefits are and for a little bit of discomfort, I’m willing to let the benefits flow.

RLH:  Well, Dr. Clay, thank you so much for your time.

PC:  Thank you.


Listen to the short story here.

It’s not uncommon for people who knew Williston before 1968 to lament the loss of the “greatest school under the sun”. 

A StarNews report says a Wilmington physician described the closing as a painful necessity on the path to equality while another well-known civil rights leader called it “an act of destruction against the black community.” 

Phillip Clay, 1964 graduate of Williston and former Chancellor of MIT, says both of those characterizations are fair and accurate.

"And what is unfortunate is that there were no efforts to deal with those two realities.  And so we got the worst of it.  That is there was no way of carrying the Williston tradition on beyond when the school closed.  And as a result, much of that sense of attention and focus and tradition, which lifted very modest-means students on to a higher educational trajectory – much of that was lost."

It wasn’t atypical, says Clay, for his classmates to go on to some of the best schools in the country for college.  His teachers, involved in the civil rights struggles at the time, understood they were educating the next generation of leaders.

This is part of a series on Williston Luminaries – Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Williston in Wilmington.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.