Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Archie Williams

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Archie Williams (1915–1993) was an educator, trailblazing airman, and track and field star best known for winning gold in the 400 meters at the 1936 Olympics. A passionate student of multiple trades, Williams pursued his dreams fearlessly and with a sense of humor, finding success beyond athletics in the face of racism and discrimination.

Marin History Museum. Gift of Scott Fletcher

Williams grew up in Oakland, California, in a working-class family, with strong influences from his civic-minded grandparents. He worked odd jobs to help his widowed mother and, shut out of the Boy Scouts due to his race, spent his spare time building model airplanes and participating casually in sports.

Courtesy Archie Williams High School

Williams became interested in track and field while attending University High School in Oakland. He then competed on the San Mateo Junior College track team with his eyes set on entering UC Berkeley’s engineering program.

Courtesy Oakland History Center / Oakland Public Library

Once at UC Berkeley, Williams made a rapid ascent from unknown engineering student to Olympic star. Honing his talent for track and field as a walk-on member of legendary coach Brutus Hamilton’s team, Williams set a world record in the 400 meters and earned a place on the U.S. Olympic team.

Courtesy Cal Athletics

At the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, where German Chancellor Adolf Hitler expected to showcase his theories of Aryan racial superiority, Williams and his African American teammates won 14 medals, including Williams’ gold in the 400 meters.

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Upon returning to the United States, Williams received a hero’s welcome, honored with a ceremony and parade in Oakland. He reconnected with his proud hometown community, made speeches, and toured his old schools.

Courtesy Bancroft Library, San Francisco Examiner Collection

However, the post-Olympics glamour was short-lived for Williams and his teammates. They soon returned to the reality of being Black in 1930s America, where racism limited their opportunities.

Courtesy Estate of Archie Williams

When a hamstring injury in 1937 cut short his track career, Williams re-focused on his studies. Although his counselor tried to dissuade him from pursuing an all-white profession, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering, as well as his pilot’s license.

Courtesy Estate of Archie Williams

Upon graduation, he took a position as a flight instructor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he taught some of the first Black pilots in U.S. military history. After joining the Air Force, Williams earned a degree in meteorology at UCLA and spent 22 years as a flight instructor and weather officer.

Courtesy Air Force Historical Research Agency (Call No. 289.28-8 V.2, IRIS 00179166)

Williams later earned an aeronautical engineering degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology and retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1964.

Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Williams also was a devoted family man. His lasting romance with his wife, Vesta, began in the early 1940s when he took her for an airplane ride at Tuskegee. The couple had two sons, and Williams enjoyed teaching them all about aviation and taking them on airplane rides.

Courtesy Estate of Archie Williams

After retiring from the military, Williams earned his credential and became a beloved high school teacher. For over two decades he taught mathematics and computers, as well as coaching the track team. He especially enjoyed teaching students who struggled academically, believing that every child can succeed with the right support.

Courtesy Archie Williams High School

The school was renamed Archie Williams High School in 2021 in recognition of his positive impact on the lives of the students he taught there.