University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire integrated with little fanfare

Charles Boston Woodson Jr.s photograph from the 1951 UW-Eau Claire Periscope.

Charles Boston Woodson Jr.’s photograph from the 1951 UW-Eau Claire Periscope.

Max Perrenoud, Student

An uncredited photograph of Charles Woodson Jr. from the 1951 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Periscope. Originally captioned, “Quiet, genius at work.”

Charles Boston Woodson Jr. was the first Black student to attend the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  He enrolled in 1951 – long before another Black American Autherine Lucy would attempt to integrate the University of Alabama in 1956.  But unlike Lucy, Woodson would not have the details of his experience recorded.

Robert Gough, professor emeritus at UW-Eau Claire, researched the story of Woodson for a book he was co-writing in 2015 on the university’s centennial history, Building Excellence: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 1916-2016.  Gough spotted Woodson in the school yearbook, but it was too late to interview him. Woodson died two years earlier.

Why Woodson came to Eau Claire, a city that the 1950 census would show to have seven African American residents, would elude Gough throughout his research.

“That’s really the million dollar question,” said Gough of Woodson’s journey to Wisconsin.

“We know he arrives by boat from Japan in the middle of August of 1949 and a couple of weeks later he’s in Eau Claire,” Gough said.  “And that’s a real mystery.  He’s not an athlete, so he is not recruited as an athlete.  But he must have knew somebody, or met somebody that recommended Eau Claire.  Who that was… it’s a mystery.”

Charles Woodson Jr. was born on Aug. 17, 1923, in Nebraska.  His grandfather was almost certainly an “exoduster” or former slave who had moved to that area during the post-Reconstruction era.  Soon after Charles Jr. was born his father moved the family to Kansas.

Ada Woodson, the daughter of Charles Woodson Sr., would later write that her father’s motivation for moving the family was to get a proper education for his children in the racially integrated schools of Kansas.  Unaware his son would later be the first Black student to attend a college.

“Chuck,” as his obituary calls him, graduated from Horton High School in Kansas in June of 1942 and joined the military in October of that year.  He remained in active service throughout World War II until his discharge in 1946.

The details of Woodson’s military life have not been extensively recorded.  His obituary states that he was trained as a radio technician with the Air Force and received a rank of TEC 5.

Woodson’s obituary also says he completed his bachelor’s degree at the then Eau Claire State Teachers College.  But records show he transferred out of Eau Claire before completing the degree to study economics at Mexico City College.

“What’s striking is that nothing is said about him as the first Negro.  You would think The Spectator would have run an article, they would run articles on foreign students,” Gough said about Woodson integrating the Eau Claire campus.

Gough suggests that Woodson’s varied background would have made him a confident individual in an unusual setting.  Woodson had grown up in integrated neighborhoods and students may have simply perceived him as non-threatening.  This was in contrast to Southern states at the time and the story of Autherine Lucy.

Recently, UW-Eau Claire students participated in the 10th annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage and visited the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  The group toured the campus and gained insight into their integration process.  Lucy was the University of Alabama’s first black student.  Her enrollment lasted three days during February of 1956.

“Her time was marked by conflict, contention, and neglect,” said UA Associate Professor Adam Brooks about Lucy’s time in Tuscaloosa.

After multiple incidents became violent, the university shut down Lucy’s integration attempt and she was expelled.  Years later Lucy would return to the University to complete her education and her experiences are extensively recorded.  The only surviving text on Woodson at UW-Eau Claire is a four word yearbook caption beneath a picture of him working at a desk.

“Quiet, genius at work.”

According to Gough it can be concluded that Woodson planned on leaving Eau Claire State Teachers College after the two years to complete his degree elsewhere.  This was common for students who did not want to go into teaching after graduation at the time.

“As far as I can tell, the first Black students didn’t graduate from Eau Claire until 1970,” Gough said.

In comparison the University of Alabama would graduate its first Black student, Vivian Malone, in 1965.  Brooks says such facts are often overlooked.

“We perceive these divisions of race along geographic lines, but racism is everywhere and I would say in the South it gets more attention and it is more visible.  But I think the harder work is to talk about racism in perceivably all white spaces,” said Brooks.

Without a clear record, it is hard to know whether Charles Boston Woodson Jr. attracted any special attention or stirred controversy while attending UW-Eau Claire as its first black student.  One record of Chuck that does survive is his academic performance and according to Gough he was a very good student.

“It is unusual and really disappointing that he seemed to have little impact on Eau Claire,” said Gough.  “You would have thought they would have used him as a model in some sort of way.”

Charles Woodson Jr.’s sister Ada died one month after him.  His surviving sister Charlotte “Zoe” Thompkins could not be contacted for more information on her brother’s experiences in Eau Claire.  Since Woodson never had any children of his own his personal experiences will likely never be revealed.