On this day in 1970, Wilson Riles was elected the superintendent of Public Instruction in California.
Riles, an educator and politician was born on June 27, 1917 in Louisiana. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by family friends. In 1940, Riles graduated from Northern Arizona University and then went on to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
The 1970 election against Max Rafferty for the position of California State Superintendent of Public Instruction was described as “one of the most stunning upsets in California’s political history.” Riles was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1973 for “outstanding achievement by an African-American.”
He was elected for a second term in 1974 and a third term in 1978. He ran again in 1982, but lost to Louis “Bill” Honig.
Riles was the first African American to be elected to statewide office in California, as well as the first African-American to be elected state superintendent of schools. He is the founder of the Wilson Riles Archives and Institute for Education in Sacramento, a public education facility that offers an archival collection, a traveling exhibit, and an information and referral service.
Riles died at Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, California on April 1, 1999. Wilson C. Riles Middle School, located in Roseville, California, is named in honor of him. His son, Wilson Riles, Jr. served on the city council of Oakland, California for 13 years.