Black History Month began February 1, and we plan to celebrate by dedicating some of our blogs to learning about black Americans in weather. To kick the month off, we are talking about Archie Williams…and not the Archie Williams some of you might know from the televised talent show, “America’s Got Talent”….though Archie had a LOT of talent.
The early years
Archie’s story began in Oakland, California on May 1, 1915, where he grew up camping, fishing, and building wooden boats and model airplanes – airplanes were his favorite. His father passed away when Archie was young, and he grew up with his mother near the university campus in Berkley. Despite growing up in a single parent home during the Depression, Archie recalled never missing a meal nor going to school with holes in his shoes. He also endured the trials of racial discrimination as well, from swimming pools not allowing blacks to not being able to join the Boy Scouts that many of his white friends were involved in.
He also enjoyed running races, and joined the track team in high school. After graduation, he initially took a job as a golf caddy, but then he and a friend decided junior college might be a cheaper and better route than doing menial work. Though Archie said he “fooled around a lot” in high school (and subsequently had poor grades), he decided to make the most of his opportunity of going back to school. He planned to become an engineer and began taking courses he had never taken before – from trigonometry to physics and beyond. Not only did he take them though, he aced them easily, and within a year, he was able to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley.
Berkeley’s track coach, Brutus Hamilton, noticed Archie’s abilities and asked him to join the track and field team, which was truly an anomaly at a time when many college coaches wouldn’t even allow black athletes on the team. Brutus was known as father figure who truly wanted his athletes to succeed, both on and off the track, and knew both their grades and splits by heart. After transferring to Berkeley in 1933, Archie worked hard on and off the track. By 1936, he was breaking records and won the NCAA championships in Chicago. That summer, he qualified to represent the United States in the Olympic Games in Berlin.
Though Archie went on to win the gold in the 400-meter race in Berlin (the same event he’d won in Chicago), he remained humble.
Somebody once asked me, “How does it feel to be the greatest in the world?” I said, “What the hell are you talking about? How do you know I’m the greatest in the world? There may be some guy down there in Kenya being chased by a lion that broke my record before breakfast.” I said, “I just beat the ones that showed up that day.”
Where the weather story begins
By the late 1930s, Archie’s running career ended abruptly due to a hamstring injury, and that wasn’t the only obstacle he faced. Campus engineering societies weren’t open to black Americans, and no one would hire him as an engineer after he graduated in 1939. After graduation, he worked at Oakland Airport as a maintenance technician in exchange for flying lessons, and he was eventually rated as an instructor (though unofficially, because black Americans weren’t allowed to teach flying). Two years later, he applied to train the first black military pilots at the Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama. Some of the Tuskegee weather officers pioneered in meteorology after the war: the first African American weather cadet, Wallace Reed, became the first African American meteorologist in the Weather Bureau. The highly respected group would go on to distinguish themselves as heroes, though Archie’s initial time with them was rather short.
Due to his scientific background, he was sent to the meteorology program at UCLA. At the time the war broke out, there were only three meteorology programs in the country! There were only 62 forecasters in the army and less than 400 across the entire country. The war necessitated a high demand for forecasters and observers. By 1942, there were over 1,700 cadets enrolled in the national program and 6,000 completed the training. After finishing the course at UCLA, Archie was sent back to Tuskegee to serve as a lieutenant—a weather officer—forecasting and mapping the weather, and eventually again teaching introductory flying skills.
After the war, Archie was a rare qualified pilot with meteorology credentials and stayed with the air force. Truman also called for desegregation in the air force, which led to Archie pursuing and receiving his degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He went on to fly missions over Korea, forecast for the war from Japan, and continued his career as a meteorologist across multiple air bases from New York to Alaska and eventually California, where he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965.
Passing the torch
Archie began teaching at the University of California-Riverside while finishing with the air force and then moved on to teach math and computer science for an affluent, largely white high school near San Francisco. From this position he also did some coaching and reached out with programs for underserved students in nearby schools. Archie went on to say that while he enjoyed coaching, the athletics weren’t his main interest, that he preferred working with “the less-endowed kids, or in some cases, kids who were handicapped or slow learners. I really enjoyed that and it’s a really good feeling to see success; not only to see them succeed, but to see them recognize the benefit of success.”
He taught for twenty years and eventually passed away at age 78 in 1993. He left behind his widow, Vesta Williams and two sons, Carlos and Archie, Jr. He also leaves behind an outstanding legacy, one earned with determination and hard work. Earning an Olympic gold medal as a black man opened the doors for thousands of black American athletes in the coming generation. Studying science in a time where black Americans were encouraged not to, defying regulations to teach others to fly, instilling the love of learning in others, and helping others succeed…that is who Archie Williams was, and that is his legacy.