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Living Black History

Dr. Ed Walton

I was brought up where signs identified the black bathroom and the white bathroom. The KKK used to burn crosses. I’ve seen that. My generation is going now, and the new generation does not have the experiences we had.

Chemistry Professor Ed Walton opens a drawer, pulls out a small green book and modestly places it on his desk. On the first page is a photo of his father, Norman Walton, a history professor who taught at Alabama State University for 35 years. The book, Walton says, is dedicated to his father’s memory.

The rest is filled with messages that former students have sent Walton – messages that spell out the difference he has made in their lives.

“My father once told me that the effects of teachers on students are long-term and sometimes not immediately evident,” he says. “Sometimes you find out years later.”

The reason that I am writing to you today is to thank you. … Before I had you as a professor, I was very lost, unmotivated, almost numb. I had no drive. In the past, at least for the majority of my junior high and high school years, no one believed in me. I was a shy girl who did not speak up much in class and god knows I was so confused in your chemistry class.

Then one day, a day I will never forget … you were walking around the classroom and as you passed me, you said, “I think you are the smartest person in this class.” Of course my grade in your class was not that great but your comment had such a great impact on me. You gave me my self-confidence back. You gave me a chance to desire and dream to be something more…

Now 64, Walton’s own journey began more than six decades ago in Montgomery, Alabama, the heart of the segregated South. His experiences underscore the significance of teachers and the importance of self-esteem. His is a journey that almost certainly is unlike any other in the Cal Poly Pomona community.

“It’s a funny story,” Walton says of the day he was baptized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It happened in the late 1950s before King became the nation’s conscience in the civil rights movement. Back then, he was simply the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a fraternity brother of Norman Walton’s.

“Every summer the church had a vacation Bible school, and at the end of the summer King would get up and invite people to join the church,” Walton recalls in a rich baritone.

He pauses and laughs. “Our little sister, who was 6 or 7 at the time, gets up to join the church, so my brother and I say, ‘Hey, you can’t just get up and join.’ … But King says, ‘Let her do it. Don’t call her back,’ … so we get up, too. We all ended up joining the church at the same time.”

Montgomery in the 1950s was a place where blacks attended substandard schools and drank from separate drinking fountains, where they were barred from theaters and relegated to the back of the bus. It was there that Walton and his three siblings grew up on a small island of privilege in a sea of racism.

“Back then, they had a phrase called ‘culturally deprived.’ When they didn’t want to say you were black, they would say you were ‘culturally deprived,’ ” Walton says, lingering on the final syllable for emphasis. “It was cute to me because we had access to things a lot of white kids didn’t have. We had a connection to the college. My dad was the swimming coach, so I could go swimming after school. We could go to plays and participate in college events. … All of our role models were college teachers and doctors. We were very, very fortunate.”

He owes his love of chemistry to his seventh-grade teacher, Miss Phillips, who brought science to life with a learn-by-doing style that Walton replicates in his classes at Cal Poly Pomona.

“We made electric motors; we made galvanometers. She let Charles Bell [a classmate] turn the closet into a darkroom. In the seventh grade is when I decided to be a college chemistry teacher because I was so fascinated with atoms and other things. My Ph.D. thesis is dedicated to Miss Phillips.”

Walton and his peers attended a high school on the college campus, similar to I-Poly, where opportunities and dedicated teachers abounded, but life changed dramatically when they ventured into the city.

“There was a black community and a white community and never the twain shall meet,” Walton says.

He came of age as the civil rights movement crested, and he continued his education at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.

“Going to Howard, all you see are black Ph.D.s, so you are constantly seeing black success stories. … By the time somebody got out of Howard, they didn’t have any feelings of inadequacy or other issues you get from a lack of role models.”

It was in the spring of his junior year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Walton remembers that day because his eyes started stinging while he was working in the chemistry lab. “Police were using tear gas across the campus to disperse a crowd,” he says. “That’s how I found out about King’s death.”

Years later, “while talking to my daughter, I realized that to her, Martin Luther King is just some historical figure — someone she had only read about.”

Walton says many black students today lack the role models he had and the experiences that provide perspective.

“They’ve never been [overtly] discriminated against. I’ve been turned away from the bowling alley. I was brought up where signs identified the black bathroom and the white bathroom. The KKK used to burn crosses. I’ve seen that.

“My generation is going now, and the new generation does not have the experiences we had.”

Walton hesitates to describe himself as a trailblazer, despite being one of just six blacks nationally to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1979, despite serving as an officer in the Navy, despite teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy and establishing a summer science program there for black high school students. Ask about his role in helping found the Diversity Ambassador Program at Cal Poly Pomona — a program that gives students the opportunity to travel to the South to visit historic places in the civil rights movement — and he will simply say he’s honored that it received a diversity award a few years ago. But make no mistake: He values the opportunities he had and the path he followed.

Walton remembers the Black History Week of his youth as a time for reflection. “We were always proud to be black.

Some people would ask, ‘If you could be white, would you?’ and I would say, ‘No. I’m proud being black.’”

If Black History Month “can help black students not just be OK with being black, but be proud of it, then it’s a good thing.”

Published on September 12, 2014

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The Impact Map shows how Cal Poly Pomona alumni are making a difference in Southern California and around the country. Explore the map or share your own impact.

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