Robert Terry later served as president of Seattle Central College and chancellor of the Seattle Community College System. As a young educator, he hoped his generation of students would take on inequality: “The problems of tomorrow will be solved by the youth of today.”
In 1950, four years before a welder named Oliver Brown and 12 other black parents won their historic fight to send their kids to white-only schools in Topeka, Kansas, Robert Terry walked onto the auditorium stage of Seattle’s Warren Avenue School.
There, the 23-year-old would be introduced as Warren Avenue’s newest sixth-grade teacher, becoming the first black man to teach in Seattle Public Schools. His appointment came after Seattle hired its first black teachers — two women named Marita Johnson and Thelma Fisher — in 1947.
“He told me that in his first introduction to the school as a teacher, as soon as he walked out onstage and the spotlight hit his complexion, all the clapping stopped,” Kalvin Smith, Mr. Terry’s son-in-law, said in a phone interview. “The tears were building in his eyes but he said he continued.”
Mr. Terry died at his home in Seattle from kidney disease on Sept. 1. He was 91 and a resident of the Mount Baker neighborhood since 1962.
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Warren Avenue School has since been demolished, giving way to a development that placed KeyArena at its current site. But the racial inequality and segregation Mr. Terry had worked to rectify still live on, almost 70 years after he landed that barrier-breaking job.
In Washington, teachers still do not reflect the demographics of their students. From last school year’s data, only around 1.3 percent of Washington teachers identified as black, compared to 4.4 percent of the student population. In 2017 around 89 percent of Washington’s public school teachers were white, seven percentage points higher than the national average.
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on Sept. 29, 1926, he spent his early life in a boxcar at a segregated logging camp before he began school in La Grande, Ore.
Mr. Terry originally stepped into the teaching role while enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. A high-school graduate and one of the few literate men serving in the segregated ranks, he taught his peers how to write their names on their paychecks, according to his family.
After the war, he received a football scholarship from the University of Oregon but was unable to attend due to segregated dormitories. In a 2002 interview with the Union County Oral History Project, Mr. Terry said he moved back home to La Grande to attend Eastern Oregon University, where he officially received his teaching degree in 1950.
“We went down and very graciously they said, ‘We will try to find housing for you,'” Mr. Terry said of the University of Oregon, at Eugene. “And I’m going, ‘Okay. You’ve got quite a lot of dorms.’ I figured if you can’t find a place for me to live, screw you. So, I went back and stayed with my grandmother. And happy that I did.”
As a young educator, Mr. Terry had hoped his generation of students would work to solve inequality. “The problems of tomorrow will be solved by the youth of today,” he told The Seattle Times, according to an article in the Sept. 7, 1950, edition.“I feel that being a teacher I can help a lot in this racial business. Youngsters who have a Negro teacher may grow up with a better understanding of racial problems.”
Today, Mr. Terry’s “youths” are aging, replaced with millennials and the next generation of young people. But his sentiment that representation matters still rings true. Black teachers have around 30 to 40 percent higher educational expectations of their black students than do non-black teachers, one study in the journal Economics of Education Review found. Other research concluded that black students who have been taught by black teachers are more likely to enter gifted programs and have fewer disciplinary consequences.
Throughout his childhood, Mr. Terry experienced this lack of representation in his mostly white classrooms. Growing up in La Grande, he attended Greenwood Elementary School, Central Junior High School and La Grande High School.
“I remember getting into the first grade and going through the little charts and things and I could always read ’em,” said Mr. Terry. “My teacher looked at me like I was strange and wanted to know where I learned to read. I think living in an environment where you are a minority, when you are the only one, I think growing up in that little town was a very fortunate thing for me.”
Those skills, Mr. Terry said, helped him communicate and understand the roots of bias. “So it gave me that insight on how to work with people who are difficult and sometimes who did not want to work with you,” he said.
After working at Warren Avenue School, Mr. Terry went on to teach at Summit School in 1953 and taught special education at Pacific School. He earned his master’s degree in student personnel from Seattle University in 1964, which enabled him to pursue administrative roles.
Mr. Terry served as the president of Seattle Central College from 1976 to 1980 before moving on to become chancellor of the Seattle Community College System.
“There was a lot of unrest in the community at that time due to a lot of protests about the war, but in a growing time he offered stability,” said Jill Wakefield, former chancellor of the Seattle Community College System. “He really helped set the foundation for the Seattle community colleges that was inviting for everyone in the community who might not have had access to college before. I felt like after talking to him I had a future and I think students believed they could do anything if he was there.”
Mr. Terry is survived by his wife, Frances, daughter Deborah Terry-Hays, sons Robert D., Michael, W. Brian and Walter. He leaves behind eleven grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
Mr. Terry’s funeral was held at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle on Sept. 15. The family said they would welcome donations made in Mr. Terry’s honor to Seattle Central College Foundation; 1701 Broadway; Seattle, WA 98122.