“Sharing Our Own Stories: Ames’ Black Voices” featured beloved Ames teacher and coach Wayne Clinton

Wayne Clinton, a teacher, coach and resident of Ames, discussed his decision to accept a teaching job at Ames Middle School at the first event in the Sharing Our Own Stories: Ames Black Voices series on Tuesday.

Photo courtesy of Clinton's Twitter page

Wayne Clinton, a teacher, coach and resident of Ames, discussed his decision to accept a teaching job at Ames Middle School at the first event in the “Sharing Our Own Stories: Ames’ Black Voices” series on Tuesday.

Claire Hoppe

Seven days— that is the amount of time that Wayne Clinton asked for to decide whether he would accept the position as a junior high geography teacher.

To be more specific, he asked Don Carlson, the school principal, if he could have a week to decide whether he was ready to be the first African-American teacher at Ames Middle School.

These seven days were what led Clinton to make one of the most pivotal decisions of his life, to move himself and his family from St. Louis to Ames, Iowa, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“And I would have to say that the story began to unfold from that time on, but never in my wildest dream[s] did I come here thinking that I couldn’t master the task at hand, that I had that much self assurance, that if given the opportunity, I could really succeed,” Clinton said.

It was at the first event in the “Sharing Our Own Stories: Ames’ Black Voices” series, which took place on Tuesday evening at the Ames Public Library, that Clinton shared the story of how he and his family moved to Ames in the 1960s. The series, created by Jahmai Fisher, Ames Human Relations chair and director of Multicultural Student Success with College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State, said the series is meant to highlight Black voices.

Susan Gent, the community engagement director at the Ames Public Library and program specialist for Parks Library, said she initially reached out to Fisher for ideas on how to uplift Black voices.

“I just reached out to her about having some programming,” Gent said.

From there, Fisher created the idea for the series. Gent was supportive.

“Let’s hear Black voices year-round,” Gent said.

When it came time to pick the individual to feature at the series’ first event, Fisher said she immediately thought of Clinton.

“And I wanted for the kickoff of this series, also in the spirit of Black History Month, to get a little bit of context about folks, Black folks specifically, who’ve been in Ames for quite a while,” Fisher said. “I think when you think about the Clintons in the context of Ames, Iowa, you would be remiss to talk about what the Black community within Ames and their history has looked like without mentioning those folks, among many others.”

The event was held in the format of a conversation between Fisher and Clinton, with Fisher asking questions about Clinton and his life. To start, Clinton described his childhood in St. Louis where he was born.

“If you know anything about the history of St. Louis, you know that in the ‘40s and ‘50s and all through up until the early ‘60s, it was a segregated environment,” Clinton said. “We had pretty much everything that we wanted right within our own neighborhoods, but there were definitely dividing lines in St. Louis, black and white.”

Clinton said it wasn’t until 1956 that he attended an integrated school. At his high school, Clinton was one of 12 African American students. Clinton, a four sport athlete, said he never had a teacher who looked like him throughout high school and college; but, he became very close with his high school basketball and track coaches.

“They saw something in me,” Clinton said. “They encouraged me.”

With the help of his coaches and his sister, Clinton made the decision to accept a full-ride scholarship to St. Louis University to play basketball and run track. While his situation looked hopeful, Clinton ended up dropping out of college during his first semester at school. He said this happened because parties quickly became more important than going to class.

It was only after going to watch his high school basketball team play that he met with his high school coach again. This time, his coach pushed him to go back to school, but he had help persuading Clinton. Clinton’s coach connected him with a coach from Northeast Missouri, and, after that, Clinton quickly became a part of the school’s basketball team. It was this basketball coach that gave Clinton the idea of becoming a teacher.

When Clinton’s coach asked him what he wanted to do after graduation he said, “I have no idea.”

“They said, ‘well, I think you’d be an excellent teacher, an excellent coach, and you ‘ought to consider that,’” Clinton said.

Jump forward, and Clinton is faced with the decision to accept or decline Don Carlson’s offer of being the new Ames Middle School geography teacher.

“But I said, ‘hey, I can do it,’ you know, and… that was the beginning of a chapter in my life that I have such fondness for,” Clinton said.

This was the start of Clinton’s trailblazing journey of being a teacher and coach for 34 years. Clinton went on to detail how the students and their parents “fell in love” with him and how he “fell in love” with them.

“Maybe there’s something about you, if you are well liked by students, the parents naturally follow suit, and I had such tremendous respect from everybody at that time,” Clinton said.

But Clinton made sure to remind the audience that he was one of the lucky ones, that many Black people did not have this same experience of love and respect.

“I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time,” Clinton said.

But one thing that Ames lacked at that time, according to Clinton, was a Black community. In fact, according to Clinton, it was the lack of community that caused him and his family to visit St. Louis at least once a month for years.

“So I don’t think that we [Ames, Iowa], and this is my perception, I don’t think we ever really had what I would call a real, strong, Black community,” Clinton said. “But to say that we really had a cohesive Black community- I didn’t see it.”

Fisher said she sees parallels of this in the current state of Ames and its community.

“I think it’s really interesting that those parallels can still be seen today, in terms of people maybe coming to Ames and not staying long or maybe not being able to quite find their niche within, you know, Black communities and Black spaces around Ames,” Fisher said.

According to Fisher, while there might be some diverse representation amongst leadership in Ames, one of the ways to help people feel like they are welcomed and encouraged to stay in Ames is through a broader conversation of equity and creating pathways for those groups. Clinton said one of the ways to get minority individuals and families to stay in Ames long term is through having available jobs.

“People will usually stay in a community much longer, providing they have a source of income and a job opportunity,” Clinton said. “So many that do come [to Ames, Iowa] feel like that after their four or five years, whatever it might take, that it’s the stepping stone to go someplace else. And many want to get back into an environment where there’s a lot more people that look like them.”

Clinton also said that simply asking someone who does not look like you how they are doing is a step in the right direction.

“But how do you respond to other people of color, other Blacks in the community? When you see them? Do you say ‘hi,’ you know, ‘where are you from? We’re glad you’re here. Is there anything that we can help you have a positive experience in Ames,’” Clinton said. “Something as simple as just saying something like that makes people feel welcome, that they are valued.”

Fisher echoed Clinton’s opinion.

“And so I think it really is on us as a community, especially folks who are among the majority, to, to do better, to not make assumptions and to just learn more,” Fisher said.

It is this socialization and opportunity for education that helps Clinton to have hope in the coming years.

Clinton, who went on to be a state champion coach, a 16 year member of the Story County Board of Supervisors, an Iowa African American Hall of Fame Inductee and served on the Ames Human Relations Commission, said he has noticed positive change in Ames during the past five years. He is expectant and hopeful that change will continue in Ames and on the Iowa State campus.

While it might have taken Clinton seven days to make his decision about accepting the job in Ames, and 34 years of teaching for Clinton to be the beloved Ames citizen he is now, Clinton reminds that there is still a much longer way to go on the path to true equality for all people of color in Ames.