Willie C. Stewart Sr. became Tacoma, Washington’s first Black school principal at Lincoln High School on June 25, 1970. Stewart’s appointment by School Superintendent Angelo Giaudrone, considered truly historic at the time, was but one of many achievements of this notable educator.
Stewart was born to Willie and Earlene Stewart on December 25, 1935, in Columbus, Texas. He was the 10th of 11 children, six brothers and four sisters. He picked cotton as a child, then washed dishes while attending Columbus Colored High School, where he graduated in a class of eleven in 1953. Early on, Stewart understood that he, as a Black man, had three options for a profession in the segregated Jim Crow South—be a minister, undertaker, or teacher. The third option, which he chose, required a college degree.
With the support of a sister and brother-in-law living in Houston, Stewart enrolled at historically Black college Texas Southern University, where he graduated in 1957 with a teaching certificate after majoring in biology and chemistry. As the first person in his family to complete college, Stewart began teaching in Yoakum, Texas. He soon joined the Army, which brought him to the Fort Lewis and Tacoma area in Washington state. While returning to Texas for a visit in August of 1961, he married Faye Etta Neal, also an educator. The couple had two children, Willie Jr. and Collette, who also became educators.
Stewart began his teaching career in Tacoma in 1960 as the first Black male teacher at Gault Middle School (now closed), soon rising to assistant principal. He moved from there to Lincoln High School as assistant principal, finished a Master’s degree in Education Administration at Pacific Lutheran University in 1969, and was appointed principal in 1970.
As an active member of the Army reserves, Stewart rose to the position of Colonel in the Medical Service Corps in August of 1990. After his stint at Lincoln, Stewart became the district’s assistant superintendent for personnel. His community service as a volunteer leader in organizations has been extensive: Boys and Girls Club of America, National Kiwanis, American Cancer Society, Tacoma Housing Authority, Palmer Scholars, and Tacoma Athletic Commission, to name but a few.
After completing a 36-year career with the school district, Stewart was elected to the Tacoma School Board on November 2, 1999, defeating John Washington by more than a two-to-one margin (29,917 to 14,100). He served on the Board until 2005. On February 24, 2015, the Tacoma School Board named its Re-Engagement Center the Willie Stewart Academy. The Center supports students who have dropped out of high school, lack credits to graduate on time, or have family or job needs that have precluded them from attending high school, areas of particular and ongoing concern for Stewart.