Until a few months ago, most Marinites had never heard of Archie Williams. All of a sudden, Williams and his legacy were thrust into the local spotlight as the culmination of a yearlong effort to rename Drake High School in San Anselmo.
The name Archie Williams High School seems like an unusual choice at first glance. After all, schools are often named after people we’ve heard of, like U.S. presidents or wealthy philanthropists. But as it turns out, Williams is someone with an impressive and fascinating life who was also likely the most notable person to ever walk the school’s halls.
The name change of Sir Francis Drake High School — or High School 1327 as it was known for over a year — has been brewing since late last summer, following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 that spurred a new civil rights movement. Discussions around removing Drake as the school’s namesake began soon after, driven by Drake’s alleged association with slave trading in the 1500s. The new name, Archie Williams High School, was formally voted on by the board of the Tamalpais Union High School District and announced on May 11, two weeks before the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.
The school name-change decision and the process leading up to it has not been without strife and controversy. Initially led by the Drake Leadership Council, consisting primarily of educators, parents, students and former students, the process behind the name change upset many in the greater community, including a number of former graduates of the school.
Dani Citti, who graduated from Drake in 1981, is part of a larger group of the school’s graduates who disagree with the rationale behind the name change, arguing that changing the school’s name alone does not go far enough to counteract racism at the school. “I’m glad they went back to Archie Williams, because I didn’t like any of the other names, but they (referring to the Tamalpais Union High School Board) have a long way to go to combat racism,” she says. “They need to up their game with anti-racist policies.”
Liz Seabury, the school’s former principal who was recently assigned to the position of senior director of inclusion, instruction and intervention, maintains that the district held open listening sessions for the community and opened Drake Leadership Council sessions to the public. In the end, the school board made the final decision in keeping with district policy, she says. When students return to classrooms in August, Seabury said there are plans for a formal unveiling of the new name on the building, as well as a series of opening week activities to foster school spirit, build relationships and educate students on Williams and his impact on the school, including a talk presented by Carlos Williams, Williams’ youngest son.
Archie Williams High School will also do away with the longstanding Pirates mascot associated with Drake. The new mascot — the Falcons — was chosen by the school community and is fashioned after the peregrine falcon, a bird species found commonly throughout California. Marin-based shops ROI-DNA and Market Brand, both run by current parents of students, are leading the rebranding and design work and offering their services pro-bono.
All of this leads us back to the question, who was Archie Williams? Williams was born in Oakland in 1915. As a young man, he was one of only a handful of African-American men from the U.S. to compete in the games; Jesse Owens was his teammate. Williams competed in the 400-meter dash, with Adolph Hitler watching from the grandstands. It was a stunning, come-from-behind victory for Williams, earning him an Olympic Gold Medal and national attention back home. Hitler refused to acknowledge the win or shake Williams’ hand.
He was also a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, known for their impressive flying and fighting performances, which also served as a catalyst for the racial integration of the armed forces.
Despite his accolades, it turns out that Williams didn’t believe his finest achievement involved running or flying, but was centered on his work teaching young and impressionable math and computer science students at Drake High School from the mid 1960s to the late ’80s. Williams taught at the school for 22 years, earning a reputation for being approachable, dedicated and humble. He retired from teaching in 1987 and passed away in 1993, at the age of 78.
“My dad was all about community, integrity and loving others more than he loved himself,” says Carlos Williams. “He never missed a single day in all of his years of teaching. His classroom was open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to make himself accessible to students. He didn’t really like talking about the Olympics; he’d rather talk about school, kids and aeronautics.” The younger Williams recalls taking his father’s algebra class as a sophomore. “I got a B in the class, and I deserved it,” he says with a chuckle.
Toni Frederickson Shroyer, a 1985 graduate and one of Williams’ computer science students, describes Williams as extremely unpretentious, approachable, well-liked and patient. “We all called him ‘Arch’ and would wave to him in the hallways,” she says, adding that she wishes he had received more recognition back then because he was such a stand-out teacher. “Few people have risen to his level of achievement, yet he hardly ever talked about his accomplishments because he was so humble.”
Ted Farnkopf, a San Anselmo resident who graduated in 1976, credits Williams with keeping him above water in his math studies. “He tutored me in math after school,” he said. “He spent more time dealing with the underdogs than the academically gifted. I was fortunate enough to have his assistance. Whomever hired him at the school was very smart, or very lucky.”
Farnkopf has petitioned the school district for a number of years to properly honor Williams, even proposing a structure called Archie’s Archway at the school leading out to the track field. “I watched the school’s track field memorialized for others,” he says. “Archie was always the bridesmaid and not the main character. I’m happy with the name change, but would have liked to have seen him recognized years ago.”
Vern Glenn, a sportscaster at KPIX-TV who has produced several news stories on Williams, has also felt for years that Williams is an unsung hero whose time was overdue. Glenn prophetically remarked at the end of a video piece on Williams in 2017, “this push to honor Williams… it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when it’s going to happen.”
While it remains to be seen how much impact the new name will have, it appears that Archie Williams is the right choice for the San Anselmo-based high school. “People have told me for years that my dad was a living history lesson,” Carlos says. “Teaching was his greatest passion. He would be so pleased to be honored in this way.”
Contribute to the Archie Williams High School Renaming Project here, which will provide funds for rebranding efforts.
For more on Marin:
- Celebrating Juneteenth: Why It’s Important, its History and How to Get Involved This Year
- Dorothea Lange’s Steep Ravine: How an American Photography Icon Found Her Sanctuary in Marin
- The Story of Forest Farm: How the San Geronimo Valley Became Home to the Country’s First Racially Integrated Summer Camp West of the Mississippi
Donna Berry Glass is a freelance writer in Marin County who writes mostly about family and kid-oriented topics. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family exploring the natural beauty of Marin, snuggling with her Cavalier King Charles spaniel while reading a good book or whipping up something delicious in her space-challenged kitchen. Donna is a supporter of the California Academy of Sciences, a world class science museum and research institution, and the Institute on Aging which provides much needed services to seniors and disabled individuals.