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Wilson C. Riles


What every student should know about Wilson Riles:

  1. Enrolled in Arizona State Teachers College (NAU) in 1936, graduated in 1940 with a major in education and a minor in history.

  2. Riles enrolled at ASTC (NAU) as the first Black student.

  3. Riles fought in WWII as a pilot, and later joined the Fellowship for Reconciliation, a pacifist organization committed to conscientious objection to war and violence.

  4. Served as principal of Flagstaff’s Dunbar School from 1947-1954.

  5. Riles was an activist and a spokesman for civil rights in Flagstaff and surrounding communities, and worked to help students and other Black community members overcome segregation in schools, housing, cultural, athletic, and educational activities.

  6. Riles and Sturgeon Cromer worked to desegregate Flagstaff public schools , and was successful in 1953, prior to the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The Dunbar School was closed in May 1954, and the students were allowed to attend other community schools such as the South Beaver school in August, 1954.

  7. In 1958, Riles joined the California State Department of Education as a Consultant in Certified Employment Practices, and was the Department’s first African-American professional employee.

  8. President Nixon invited Dr. Riles to Chair the US. Task force on Urban Education.

  9. In 1970, Riles was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction of California. He was re-elected in 1974 and 1978. He was the first African American elected to an executive position in the California State government.

  10. Riles received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from NAU in 1976.

  11. Historic court decision: Larry P. v. Riles (1979), the Federal District Court ruled that as a result of the overrepresentation of Black children receiving special education services, the state of California would no longer utilize IQ tests to determine placement.


3-Second Summary:

As Principal of the Dunbar School, Wilson Riles helped develop Flagstaff’s Southside as a viable neighborhood for black and brown residents. Dr. Riles helped desegregate Flagstaff public schools in 1953, and promoted educational equity in California during the 1970s when he was the first Black elected to statewide office.




Themes for Lesson Plans:

Education and segregation:  Examine whether closing Black schools to achieve desegregation of public schools was a good thing? (student debate/picket sign project)

Unequal education: Why are Black students overrepresented in special education classes (Students research the court case: Larry P. v. Riles)

Black migration from the South to the West (topographical maps, embodiment of characters)


30 Second Biography:

Wilson C. Riles was principal of the Southside’s Dunbar School from 1947-54. A graduate of Arizona State Teachers College (NAU), he was also president of the NAACP and a radio talk show host during his years in Flagstaff. Riles was originally from Louisiana, and was recruited by Ms. Cleo Murdoch to work for the Dunbar School. In 1952-53, Riles and Superintendent Sturgeon Cromer worked to desegregate Flagstaff city schools. It was agreed that the segregated Dunbar School would close in May 1954 – at the end of the school year - and that Dunbar students would join other neighborhood students at the South Beaver School, which had been segregated for Mexican/Latino and Native American students since the 1920s.  Riles moved to Northern California and became California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction for California in 1970. He was the first Black person elected to statewide office in California.



Wilson & Louise Riles Collection:


Wilson Riles Oral History:


Unpublished documents, Special Collections: Colorado Plateau Archives, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University


African American Pioneers in Flagstaff: Related oral histories in NAU Special Collections, etc.


Key Quote:

“No Adversary Situation”

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