Pioneering St. Paul leader, Bill Wilson, dies

Melvin Carter greets Bill Wilson
Melvin Carter, St. Paul's first black mayor, greets Bill Wilson, the city's first black council member, at a gathering in October 2019. Wilson died Saturday, after a six-decade career in activism, politics and education.
Courtesy of Joe Nathan

Bill Wilson, St. Paul’s first black council member and president, has died. Wilson fell ill and passed away Saturday at the age of 79.

Born in southern Indiana, Wilson spent some of his childhood in an orphanage. He told friends and family of the overt racism he recognized even as a kid — the school bus took him past the schools in his neighborhood, to a school farther away, only for black students.

He won a basketball scholarship to Knoxville College, but eventually wound up at the University of Minnesota, paying for school with work as a lab tech at 3M and a waiter on the Great Northern Railway in St. Paul.

It was a time of racial division and awakening on campus. Wilson's wife, Willie Mae, said students recognized Bill's potential as a leader.

“They worked him over pretty good because they told him you're only using your mind for the white man, you need to do something to help the black community,” she said. “And that got through him.”

Wilson helped form a black student union and went on to found and run the nonprofit Inner City Youth League in St. Paul.

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A few years later, in 1975, Gov. Wendell Anderson named Wilson the state's human rights commissioner, a job he also held in the administration of Rudy Perpich.

After Perpich's defeat in 1978, friends encouraged Wilson to run for office himself. They suggested he set his sights on a City Council seat, a daunting prospect as all the candidates had to run citywide at the time. The city had never elected a black council member, and Wilson said advisers cautioned him to downplay his race.

“What you need to do is take a low profile. Regardless of what you say, people can smile to your face, but they get in that booth, you know. I know bigots when I've seen them. You have to be awfully careful,” Wilson said he was advised.

“And I started thinking, how in the world do you run a campaign taking a low profile?” he said.

Ignoring the counsel, Wilson mounted a relentless doorknocking campaign on the city's east side and Highland Park neighborhoods, some of the city's least diverse at the time. He campaigned on neighborhood improvement and economic development and won.

He served more than a dozen years on the council. In 1989, he won reelection by just two votes, but his fellow council members elected him president. He made a bid for mayor in 1993, only to fall to Norm Coleman and eventually lose his council seat.

He returned to the University of Minnesota to work on diversity and recruiting, and became an early proponent of charter schools.

He helped found the Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul in 1999, which has grown to 1,000 students and won accolades for helping address the achievement gap between black and white students.

The school's success was in no small part thanks to Wilson's skills as a relentless collaborator and listener, said Samuel Yigzaw, Higher Ground’s executive director.

“And no matter who — you can be a big name person, you can be a little kid — he would give you the time, and he would listen with no prejudgment,” Yigzaw said. “He is an amazing person.”

Wilson suffered a stroke in May, but was back at work at Higher Ground this fall, and at his desk until the winter break started last week.