Chemistry Professor Ed Walton opens a drawer, pulls out a small green book and modestly places it on his desk. On the first page is a photo of his father, Norman Walton, a history professor who taught at Alabama State University for 35 years. The book, Walton says, is dedicated to his father’s memory.
The rest is filled with messages that former students have sent Walton — messages that spell out the difference he has made in their lives.
“My father once told me that the effects of teachers on students are long-term and sometimes not immediately evident,” he says. “Sometimes you find out years later.”
The reason that I am writing to you today is to thank you. Before I had you as a professor, I was very lost, unmotivated, almost numb. I had no drive. In the past, at least for the majority of my junior high and high school years, no one believed in me. I was a shy girl who did not speak up much in class and god knows I was so confused in your chemistry class.
Then one day, a day I will never forget — you were walking around the classroom and as you passed me, you said, “I think you are the smartest person in this class.” Of course my grade in your class was not that great but your comment had such a great impact on me. You gave me my self-confidence back. You gave me a chance to desire and dream to be something more.
Now 64, Walton’s own journey began more than six decades ago in Montgomery, Alabama, the heart of the segregated South. His experiences underscore the significance of teachers and the importance of self-esteem. His is a journey that almost certainly is unlike any other in the Cal Poly Pomona community.
“It’s a funny story,” Walton says of the day he was baptized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It happened in the late 1950s before King became the nation’s conscience in the civil rights movement. Back then, he was simply the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a fraternity brother of Norman Walton’s.
“Every summer the church had a vacation Bible school, and at the end of the summer King would get up and invite people to join the church,” Walton recalls in a rich baritone. He pauses and laughs. “Our little sister, who was 6 or 7 at the time, gets up to join the church, so my brother and I say, ‘Hey, you can’t just get up and join.’ But King says, ‘Let her do it. Don’t call her back,’ … so we get up, too. We all ended up joining the church at the same time.”
Montgomery in the 1950s was a place where blacks attended substandard schools and drank from separate drinking fountains, where they were barred from theaters and relegated to the back of the bus. It was there that Walton and his three siblings grew up on a small island of privilege in a sea of racism.
“Back then, they had a phrase called ‘culturally deprived.’ When they didn’t want to say you were black, they would say you were ‘culturally deprived,’ ” Walton says, lingering on the final syllable for emphasis. “It was cute to me because we had access to things a lot of white kids didn’t have. We had a connection to the college. My dad was the swimming coach, so I could go swimming after school. We could go to plays and participate in college events. ¿ All of our role models were college teachers and doctors. We were very, very fortunate.”
He owes his love of chemistry to his seventh-grade teacher, Miss Phillips, who brought science to life with a learn-by-doing style that Walton replicates in his classes at Cal Poly Pomona.
“We made electric motors; we made galvanometers. She let Charles Bell [a classmate] turn the closet into a darkroom. In the seventh grade is when I decided to be a college chemistry teacher because I was so fascinated with atoms and other things. My Ph.D. thesis is dedicated to Miss Phillips.”
Walton and his peers attended a high school on the college campus, similar to I-Poly, where opportunities and dedicated teachers abounded, but life changed dramatically when they ventured into the city.
“There was a black community and a white community and never the twain shall meet,” Walton says.
He came of age as the civil rights movement crested, and he continued his education at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.
“Going to Howard, all you see are black Ph.D.s, so you are constantly seeing black success stories. By the time somebody got out of Howard, they didn’t have any feelings of inadequacy or other issues you get from a lack of role models.”
It was in the spring of his junior year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Walton remembers that day because his eyes started stinging while he was working in the chemistry lab. “Police were using tear gas across the campus to disperse a crowd,” he says. “That’s how I found out about King’s death.”
Years later, ¿while talking to my daughter, I realized that to her, Martin Luther King is just some historical figure ¿ someone she had only read about.¿ Walton says many black students today lack the role models he had and the experiences that provide perspective.
“They’ve never been [overtly] discriminated against. I’ve been turned away from the bowling alley. I was brought up where signs identified the black bathroom and the white bathroom. The KKK used to burn crosses. I’ve seen that.
“My generation is going now, and the new generation does not have the experiences we had.”
Walton hesitates to describe himself as a trailblazer, despite being one of just six blacks nationally to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1979, despite serving as an officer in the Navy, despite teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy and establishing a summer science program there for black high school students. Ask about his role in helping found the Diversity Ambassador program at Cal Poly Pomona ¿ a program that gives students the opportunity to travel to the South to visit historic places in the civil rights movement ¿ and he will simply say he¿s honored that it received a diversity award a few years ago. But make no mistake: He values the opportunities he had and the path he followed.
Walton remembers the Black History Week of his youth as a time for reflection.
“We were always proud to be black. Some people would ask, ‘If you could be white, would you?’ and I would say, “No. I’m proud being black.'”
If Black History Month “can help black students not just be OK with being black, but be proud of it, then it’s a good thing.”
More from Professor Ed Walton
From a childhood in the segregated South to a career at Cal Poly Pomona, Ed Walton¿s life story is unlike any other in the university community. Here are some additional observations from his life, black history, role models and education.
His church pastor, Martin Luther King Jr.
¿What I remember about Martin Luther King is that in his sermons he talked about ¿God is Love,¿ and love dictates responsibility, and we¿re responsible for the way we live and for the way things are. ¿ Today people would call it social responsibility, but for him it was religious responsibility: If you love God, if you believe in God, you have to be responsible for your fellow people. ¿ And that was a big part of our lives. I remember for vacation Bible school we visited one place ¿ a church basement ¿ and it was a mess. We did our thing and got ready to leave, and the lady in charge of us said, ¿Before you leave, you have to clean the place up,¿ and we said, ¿No, this place was like this when we got here.¿ And I remember just what she said. She said, ¿You know, we¿re not responsible for how we find something, but we are responsible for how we leave it.¿ And it occurs to me that that was the philosophy of Martin Luther King. We¿re responsible for how we leave things. As I went through life, that¿s the thing I remembered most. ¿ That follows me.¿
Community values and discipline
¿The same people who were teachers at the high school were also the teachers at church. You couldn¿t misbehave, because in that time, principals could spank you, teachers could spank you. And the thing was, if you got spanked by the principal, he would just tell your parents, and then they would spank you. Somebody was talking about how important parents were, but in our community, almost everybody could correct you. All the parents knew each other. So you couldn¿t misbehave too much.¿
King¿s ascent in the civil rights movement
¿He was just our pastor back then [but] when the bus boycott was being thought about, all the pastors and ministers got together and asked who should lead. ¿ And the story is none of the older, more established ministers wanted to, so they said, ¿Let this younger guy take the heat.¿ ¿ I was a senior in high school during the march on Selma and Bloody Friday. When the march on Selma came, we met [King and his supporters] when they marched into Montgomery¿ and they had a big rally the next day, so I was able to go to it. ¿ It was then that you knew he was a real leader.¿
¿It was just kind of the way things were. ¿ I think our parents kept us kind of isolated because you didn¿t have to go into the white community. We had the black church, the black school ¿ so except for going out shopping, there was very minimal contact. It wasn¿t until the civil rights movement started that people started saying, ¿Wait a minute, this isn¿t right. Let¿s go and see what will happen if we try to go to the movies.¿ There was one student from the college who pretended that he was African, that he didn¿t speak English that well ¿ and they let him in. ¿ Those were strange times. ¿ For people at [Alabama State], there was a lot pressure that if they were caught participating, they could lose their jobs because it was a state college. There was pressure on the educated community not to get involved, even though many did ¿ but there was always that pressure in the background.¿
¿One day some guys in the KKK drove up to the field across from our home. In the back of the pickup was a cross. They were about to burn the cross in the field, but when my daddy drove up they ran away and they lit it about three blocks down where nobody was. That¿s the kind of cowards they were.¿
Desegregation of the schools in Montgomery
Walton¿s mother, who taught fifth and sixth grade, ¿ended up teaching at a white school. She felt kind of sorry for two black girls in her class because they were just so far behind the white kids. ¿ She felt it was bad that they were thrown into that situation. The initial integration effort was a traumatic experience for a lot of people, but they worked through it.¿
Attending Howard University
¿We didn¿t have a lot of choices, because I could only go to black schools, so I couldn¿t consider the University of Alabama. My choices were Morehouse College or Tuskegee or Howard. I didn¿t want to go to Tuskegee because it was too close, plus it was the rival of Alabama State ¿ like USC and UCLA ¿ and Morehouse was all men. Howard was a really good school. It offered Ph.D.s even back then. It was one of maybe two historically black colleges that offered Ph.D.s. ¿ The thing about Howard University is you had blacks from all over the country. ¿ We met some interesting people. Howard even had some white professors, so that was kind of interesting too. But we didn¿t have a counterculture ¿ that¿s a white phenomenon. We didn¿t have hippies, not at Howard.¿
A missed opportunity
In 1969, ¿when integration was more like the norm, one of the white professors said, ¿I can get you into Stanford.¿ It has a program for minorities, and I said, ¿Hey, I don¿t need any program for minorities.¿ I went to the Oregon Graduate Center, which was new. Now I imagine how my life would have been different had I gone to Stanford.¿
Life in the Navy
Walton was drafted one year into his graduate studies and spent four years in the Navy. ¿What¿s good about the military is that it really didn¿t matter what color you were. It just mattered what you did and what your rank was. It didn¿t matter if your officer was black or white. So the military, I think, ended up being a really good transition between the all-black community of elementary and high school and going to Howard, and then going out to life.¿
An officer and a teacher
¿At first, I just wanted to do my time and get out. ¿ And then I got lucky in [officer candidate school] because they had me pegged to be a supply officer.¿ But instead Walton helped start the BOOST program, a one-year college prep program for enlistees, where he taught chemistry. ¿It gave me a different perspective on teaching, because in the Navy, their teaching philosophy is that people have to learn the stuff. ¿ Failure is not an option, and 70 percent is not good enough. If you¿re on a carrier and a computer breaks, you can¿t just fix it 70 percent of the time. Their philosophy is that the job of teachers is to facilitate learning.¿
¿I was the only black student in the chemistry department [at the University of Maryland] for those four years except for one part-time black student who worked at the National Bureau of Standards. ¿ I picked my thesis advisor not so much on their interest in my studies, but on who there had ever had a black student. I did not want to be the first black student that somebody had.¿
What inspired him to come to Cal Poly Pomona
Walton took a sabbatical while teaching at the Naval Academy and worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley. ¿I was married, and we really liked California. So, when I went back, we applied. My experience with California was San Diego and Berkeley ¿ the San Francisco area ¿ so I¿m thinking, ¿Hey, California¿s the place to be¿ ¿ so, as you know, Pomona is a lot different from either one.¿ [laughing] ¿But that was what we did.¿
Black students today
¿I had that Tuskegee Institute poster [on the wall] and I asked some black students in my office if they had ever heard of Tuskegee, and they hadn¿t. So I went to [former colleague Katrina Hammonds] and said we ought to plan a trip where black students here can go to the South. We ended up making it a pilgrimage to the South where they went to Montgomery to see where Martin Luther King lived; they went to Selma to see the Pettus Bridge; they went to Tuskegee and they went to Atlanta. They went to Birmingham. ¿ Black students here don¿t really know what being black is if they don¿t know why we have affirmative action ¿ that, hey, we couldn¿t do this, we couldn¿t go here, we couldn¿t do all these things. There¿s a lot of history missing from the black community.¿
The importance of role models
¿I get concerned that black students can come to Cal Poly Pomona and graduate and never have a black professor. And to me, they missed something ¿ a role model. When I went to Howard, all I saw was black Ph.D.s. You were constantly seeing black success stories. ¿ By the time somebody got out of Howard, they didn¿t have any feelings of inadequacy or other issues you get from a lack of role models. ¿ And I was even luckier because growing up on a college campus, all the faculty were black. So I knew black Ph.D.s all of my life.¿
The rule of law
¿When you grow up where I grew up, things are different. When people talk about The Rule of Law, I just remember the law was I couldn¿t do this, I couldn¿t do that. So I view rules very differently from other people because I view it as, is the rule fair? Is the rule justified? It¿s not just ¿It¿s a rule so you have to obey it,¿ because if that were the case, the whole civil rights movement is out the window. My generation has a whole different view of what those things mean, because segregation was the law ¿ the rule. So we can¿t accept a rule or a law just because it¿s a rule or a law. We always have to say, is it fair? Is it just?¿
On being black
Walton¿s wife is part Native American, so he attends powwows with her. ¿Some people come to me and ask if I¿m Native American and I say, ¿You know, I¿m proud to be black, and I don¿t have to claim to be anything else.¿ I¿m comfortable and happy.¿