In Remembrance: Charles Vert Willie ’72BKD Died on January 11 2022

Charles Vert Willie, sociologist and the Charles William Eliot Professor of Education Emeritus at Harvard University and former Boston School Desegregation Master, died January 11 at age 94. Willie was most recently a resident of Brighton, MA after relocating from Concord, MA where he had lived for 44 years.

Born at home in Dallas, TX on October 8, 1927, Willie, a grandson of enslaved people, was the third child of five to Louis James Willie and Carrie (Sykes) Willie. His father earned only an eighth-grade education and made a living as a Pullman porter. Willie’s mother graduated from Wiley College in Texas. As a teacher, she home-schooled their children until they were old enough to ride in the back of streetcars to the city’s segregated schools, but she was barred from working as a married woman in the segregated school system of Dallas. Education was a priority in the Willie family: all five children were able to go to college and attend graduate school.

Willie earned a B.A. from Morehouse College in 1948 where he was elected class president and became a mentee of its president, the renowned educator Benjamin E. Mays. A member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, his class included young men who would become extraordinary leaders, including fellow sociology major Martin Luther King, Jr. After earning a master’s at Atlanta University in 1949, Willie was awarded a doctorate in sociology in 1957 from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Willie taught at Syracuse University from 1950 to 1974, rising from graduate student lecturer to chair of the Sociology Department and eventually Vice President for Student Affairs. He was Syracuse’s first Black tenured faculty member. Willie took a leave of absence from Syracuse at the invitation of Robert F. Kennedy to direct the research arm of Washington Action for Youth, a crime prevention and youth intervention program sponsored by President John F. Kennedy’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. Willie remembered RFK saying to him, “Some may consider this an opportunity, but it’s likely that you’ll understand it as an obligation.”

Willie returned to Syracuse in the mid-1960s, during which time he brought Martin Luther King Jr. to speak twice at the University. In 1966-67, Willie took another leave from Syracuse at the invitation of Harvard Medical School, where he taught and conducted research in its Department of Psychiatry as part of the Laboratory of Community Psychiatry and at the Episcopal Divinity School. In 1974, Willie left Syracuse to accept a tenured position as professor of education and urban studies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

His areas of research included desegregation, higher education, public health, race relations, urban community problems, and family life. He published more than one hundred articles and thirty-five books, including A New Look at Black Families, which had six editions, two of which were co-authored with Richard J. Reddick. Other books include Race Mixing in the Public Schools with Jerome Beker, Black Colleges in America: Challenge, Development, Survival with Ronald R. Edmonds, The Ivory and Ebony Towers: Race Relations and Higher Education; School ABKD1972 - ID: 144991 Desegregation Plans that Work; Five Black Scholars: An Analysis of Family Life, Education, and Career; Mental Health, Racism and Sexism; Controlled Choice: A New Approach to School Desegregated Education and School Improvement with Michael J. Alves, and Grassroots Social Action: Lessons in People Power Movements with Steven P. Ridini and David A. Willard. Willie formally retired from Harvard in 1999 but continued to teach part-time for another decade. Willie received honorary doctoral degrees from fifteen colleges and universities including Syracuse University, Haverford College, the Episcopal Divinity School, Emerson College, Morgan State University, and Beacon College. Morehouse College awarded him the Bennie Service Award, and Syracuse University awarded Willie its George Arents Pioneer Medal and later honored him with the Chancellor’s Citation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Willie led a richly rewarding life beyond his academic achievements. As the vice president of the House of Deputies in the Episcopal Church USA, he preached the sermon for the ordination of the first 11 women priests in the Episcopal Church. The service was held at the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, PA on July 29, 1974. Although Willie anticipated becoming the first Black president of the House of Deputies, he resigned his position in protest when the House of Bishops refused to recognize the ordination of women. In the tenth anniversary issue of Ms. Magazine (August 1982), the editors celebrated Willie as a “male hero,” for his contribution to the recognition of women priests in the Episcopal Church.

When Willie and his family moved to Massachusetts in the early 1970’s, Boston was wracked by tension and violence over white residents’ resistance to school desegregation. The judge overseeing the case, Arthur W. Garrity, asked Willie to serve as one of four court-appointed Masters to bring Boston’s landmark school desegregation case to a just conclusion. Several years later, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, a former student of Willie, invited him to develop a desegregation plan for the city. The plan, which Willie co-created with Michael Alves, became known as “Controlled Choice” and was used in Boston and Cambridge for decades. Based on his experience in Boston, Willie was asked to serve as a consultant and expert witness for major school desegregation cases in Hartford CT, Dallas and Houston TX, Denver CO, Kansas City MO, Little Rock AK, Milwaukee WI, San Jose CA, Seattle WA, St. Louis MO, St. Lucie and Lee Counties FL, and Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, and Brockton MA.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Willie to the President's Commission on Mental Health. Over a long and storied career, Willie joined the Board of Directors of the Social Science Research Council, the Fetzer Foundation, the Dana Greely Foundation, and the Boston Museum of Science, among others. He served as vice president of the American Sociological Association and president of the Eastern Sociological Society. The American Sociological Association awarded Willie its DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award, the William Foote Whyte Distinguished Career Award, and the W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award. The Eastern Sociological Society honored him with its Merit Award and established an annual award in his name.

An applied sociologist, Willie not only taught and conducted research but also applied what he learned in his work with others. For many years he gave an annual lecture and led a conversation about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X with those incarcerated at the Concord (MA) Prison. Considering himself a lifelong learner, Willie followed the teachings of his classmate Martin Luther King, Jr., the theologians Howard Thurman and Martin Buber, and the anti-colonialist Mahatma Gandhi. He strove to bring the ideals of justice, equity, empathy, and reconciliation to every conflict he faced. He uncovered the best in everyone, understanding that no matter how intransigent the conflict, resolution required neither the annihilation nor the humiliation of opposing sides. Following those principles allowed Willie to build strong professional and personal bonds; he leaves behind a broad and diverse community of those who were touched by his grace.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years Mary Sue (Conklin) Willie; daughter Sarah Willie-LeBreton (Jonathan LeBreton) of Media, PA; son Martin Willie (Jayme) of Denver, CO; son James Willie (Susan) of Takoma Park, MD; grandchildren Jeremy-Nathaniel Willie LeBreton, Susannah James Willie, and Addison Jean Willie; sister Mary Gauthier of Syracuse, NY; in-laws Betsy and David Bueschel of Evanston IL; nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and nephews, cousins, and a large and loving extended family. He was predeceased by three brothers, Louis James Willie II of Alabama, Joseph Rutherford Willie of Texas, and Alfred Noble Willie, most recently of New Jersey.

A Memorial Service is planned for Saturday March 26, 2022 at 11am at Memorial Church, Harvard University. Covid protocols are in place. All attendees must respond to the formal invitation via the following link: He will be laid to rest during a private burial service at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Charles V. Willie’s name can be made to Good Shepherd Community Care Hospice, the hospice organization of your choice or the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Arrangements are under the care of Dee Funeral Home & Cremation Service of Concord.

Submitted by the family.

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