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Just six months after he graduated from Harvard, Chico Wilson '70 charmed a group of alumni lawyers gathered at the Harvard Club of New York--despite the fact that his t-shirt and jeans clashed with the tuxedos of the other men in the room.
With what friend Lee A. Daniels '71 called carefree intellectualism, Wilson upstaged Daniels, who was the invited speaker that evening.
"It was clear that he should have been the speaker and not me," Daniels says. "Regaling the guests with tales about student activism at Harvard, speaking French with a lawyer from France...it was clear Chico was a committed intellectual, but he wore all of that stuff very lightly."
"If you saw Chico at a party, or at a very, very light social situation," Daniels adds, "he could act like he had not a care in the world."
Ernest James Wilson III, as he was more officially but less commonly known as an undergraduate, is described by many who knew him as a man with a startling capacity to fit into any environment.
A renowned student activist who was instrumental in the birth of the Afro-American Studies Department in 1969, Wilson also pursued less radical activities.
He was the first Black member of the fly, a finals club, and he was the first Black editor of the Lampoon, a semi-secret Bow Street social organization which occasionally publishes a so-called humor magazine.
Wilson "might be speaking French, talking jive or speaking straight standard English," says Robert L. Hall '69, who worked with Wilson on the Afro-Am ad hoc committee. He was always controlled and comfortable, "almost chameleon-like."
Wilson, who is now the deputy director of the Center for Strategic and international Studies in Washington, D.C., has worn many hats in his post-Harvard life.
From academia to ambassadorial travel, Wilson has followed a meandering path--almost like that of the Congo River, which Wilson voyaged with money from a Rockefeller Grant just after graduation.
As a member of President Clinton's post-election transition team in 1993, Wilson journeyed to Africa once again--this time accompanying First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president of South Africa.
At the time, Wilson was director of International Programs and Resources at the National Security Council.
Wilson says he was recruited for the job at least in part through his wife's contacts: Francille Rusan Wilson ran against Hillary Rodham for Wellesley class president in 1969. Mrs. Wilson lost, but she maintained close contact with the future first lady through succeeding decades.
The Harvard Years
When Wilson was a first-year at what was then just plain Harvard, women were only permitted in men's dorm rooms between certain--and by today's standards tame--hours: five to seven p.m.
Four years later Harvard would soon by Harvard-Radcliffe. Wilson recalls "co-ed nude swimming in the Adams House pool."
In the midst of violent protests and radical changes, Wilson and his classmates attempted to conduct normal undergraduate lives.
But the drama of the late 1960s stretched even to the Lampoon, where alcohol and laughter were supposed to define one's experience.
"I remember being in the Lampoon during one of those nights when people were trashing windows, and I was sticking my head out the window of the `castle,'" Wilson says. "A Cambridge cop going by yelled, 'Stick your god damn head back in the window or I'll shoot it off.'"
The tumultuous years which marked the time of most of the members of the class of 1970 provided great opportunities for Wilson.
As a radical activist who could both fight the University while suavely charming its members, Wilson is said to have been of a rare breed.
In the academic year 1968-69 Wilson chaired the ad hoc Committee of Black Students, which was formed soon after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The committee's main goal was to secure the establishment of an Afro-American studies department at Harvard.
The committee worked for months in conjunction with a nine-member faculty committee chaired by a young Henry Rosovsky, who was then an economics professor and would soon begin a long term as dean of the faculty.
The two committees ultimately decided to compromise, offering students beginning with members of the class of '72 the chance to earn A.B. degrees in Afro-American Studies, which would be awarded outside of a specific departmental structure.
The University, meanwhile, would be asked to begin searching for qualified faculty members so that an academic department could ultimately be formed.
Negotiations broke down once the full faculty got involved in the spring of 1969. The morning after police cleared Vietnam protesters out of University Hall, the faculty released an outline of a three-year program entitled Afro-American Studies Combined with One Allied Field.
According to Wilson, the program had not been cleared with the ad hoc committee and Black students were insulted by the requirement of combining Afro-Am with another concentration. Black students complained of being "sold out" by the administration.
Eventually, amid angry protests by Black students, the "Rosovsky Committee" drafted a new plan, calling for the formation of an Afro-American Studies department.
Some of those who interacted with Wilson during that period speak highly of his commitment and leadership during often tense times.
"He could have just gone on with his insular, middle class ways, but he remained connected with the Black consciousness," says Thomson Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson '58. "Wilson put his upper-middle class discipline to [the movement], but allowed the militancy and student activism to flourish."
Wilson comes from an academic family with close ties to both Harvard and Howard Universities. Several older members of Wilson's family attended Harvard, making Wilson a rare Black "legacy."
When Wilson returned from his post-graduation trip to Africa he attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in political economy in 1978.
His dissertation compared the energy policies of Zaire and Nigeria.
Wilson then briefly taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and then went to the University of Michigan for more than a decade.
"Michigan was a nice change from Harvard," Wilson says. "It's a big state school with smart kids. But you don't have the same East coast arrogance."
In 1980-81 Wilson returned to Harvard as a post-doctoral fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. While he was here, Wilson says he was dismayed at the state of the Afro-Am department he had worked so to hard to create.
"It was really weird going back to Harvard seeing how screwed up the African-American Studies Department was," Wilson says. "It was very disappointing to come see the Afro-Am department in a very shaky state."
Wilson says coming back as a "fledgling professor" made him understand that some of the visions he had for the department when he was an undergraduate were unrealistic.
But there was also real progress that had to be made, he says. And now, 14 years later, he says that progress has finally been achieved.
Wilson says faculty like W.E.B. Dubois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr., who currently chairs the department, and Professor of Afro-American Studies Cornel West, are revitalizing a once stagnant department.
A New Life Inside the Beltway
At Michigan, Wilson volunteered for the Clinton campaign and helped submit "policy materials" to Clinton.
Clinton's election in 1992 would change the direction of Wilson's life.
As a member of the president's transition team, Wilson helped Clinton research potential cabinet nominees.
As a lifelong "political junkie," Wilson says working on the transition team alongside Warren Christopher, Robert Reich, Laura Tyson and Anthony Lake was tremendously exciting.
Wilson says he was especially satisfied with his efforts to get more minorities into high-level government positions. Clinton also took special pride in the effort, repeatedly saying that his cabinet should "reflect America."
Eventually, Lake, who would become the national security adviser, asked Wilson to take a spot on the National Security Council staff working with emerging democracies.
As part of his job, Wilson traveled to China in 1993, in a much publicized trip with Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. The results of the trip dramatically changed Americans' perceptions of the formerly Communist nation.
"That was the beginning of a more balanced, realistic view of human rights in China," Wilson says. "It was pretty heady stuff."
For Wilson, part of the excitement of working in Washington was working as a colleague of many of the professors who taught him at Harvard, such as Dillon Professor of International Affairs Joseph S. Nye.
Eventually, Wilson left the National Security Council to go to the United States Information Agency, where he was responsible for all U.S. overseas broadcasts, such as Voice of America radio.
Wilson says he needed a change from the hectic "14 hours a day, six days a week" schedule standard for National Security Council staffers.
Wilson says he soon hopes to return to his roots in academia, and teach at the University of Maryland. "I'm ready to go back and be a professor," he says. "And write about some of the things I was a part of."
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