He was among Princeton's very first black graduates, but Art Wilson also made an impression on the hardwood -- becoming the Tigers' team captain in the 1940s.
Arthur Jewell Wilson, Jr., didn't take a well-traveled path and it seems that it might have had something to do with heredity. That's because when he faced challenges in his life, Wilson made it his habit to break through to the other side, just as his father and grandfather had done.
At the turn of the century, his grandfather Maynard was a leader of the black population in Omaha, Neb., where he was a secretary to the city's mayor for two decades.
His father, Arthur Sr., had been one of the nation's first black certified public accountants. The State of Illinois later passed legislation requiring an apprenticeship before becoming a CPA, leaving many African-Americans without opportunity. Wilson provided experience to many desiring the career and by 1945 half of the nation's black CPAs were in Chicago. The elder WIlson would also serve as an Illinois delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1948 and 1952.
So much was expected of young Art Wilson... and the expectations were realized. Just the second African-American to earn an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, Wilson was awarded an Economics degree on June 9, 1947 -- less than two months after Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Born April 3, 1923, he grew up in Chicago and attended DuSable High School. Arthur Jr. first attended Morris Brown University in Atlanta before heading to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he was a member of the black college national champion basketball team. He joined the Navy Seabees, a skilled construction unit, during World War II and spent 14 months in the Pacific. Senior officers saw to it that he enroll in the V-12 program, an officer training unit and he enrolled at Princeton University in that program.
At Princeton, where he was better known as 'Pete,' he was a two-time captain of the basketball team, played 150-pound football (now known as sprint football) and ran track. He was a starting guard on the basketball team and was the first African-American athlete on campus. More of a setup man, Wilson toiled before assists were recorded. The Harvard Crimson noted that his speed had set up several goals in a 1947 matchup with the Crimson.
Wilson did have occassional scoring outbursts, including 12 points in a victory over Villanova in 1946, but was more content to set up his teammates, one of whom was Butch van Breda Kolff, who later coached Bill Bradley at Princeton before heading to the NBA as the head coach of the L.A. Lakers.
After earning his degree from Princeton, Wilson returned to Chicago and found work as a Cook County deputy sheriff. He began a career as a clerk in the U.S. Marshals office in 1965 and served as an administrator in the witness relocation program during the tumultuous late 1960s. He became a court-appointed U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Illinois in 1975.
"I would say it is an amazing bottom-to-top approach. It is rare, extremely rare," said U.S. Marshals Historian David Turk of Wilson's rise. "He would have to have had a phenomenal range of knowledge of the U.S. Marshals program to elevate from an administrative assistant to become a marshal. It does not happen very often."
Wilson received a special commendation for outstanding service in 1976. After he retired from the U.S. Marshals Service, he served as director of public safety and chief of police for East St. Louis, Ill. Late in life he was employed by the State of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
And he never lost his interest in sports. His wife, Marcella, told the Chicago Tribune that she went into labor on a Sunday one fall and Art took her to the hospital and dropped her off. Then -- in true Chicago-fashion -- returned home to watch the second half of the Bears' game before making it back to the hospital for the delivery. In the 50th Reunion Yearbook for his class, he noted that he had coached a Chicago-area Pro-Am team which at various times included Michael Jordan, Terry Cummings, Doc Rivers, Reggie Theus and Quentin Dailey.
Wilson was not active in class affairs after graduation, but did return for the 50th reunion in 1998. He died of a massive stroke on Dec. 28, 2000, at age 77. In his memorial in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, his class wrote "The class is the poorer at the death of an accomplished, courageous man who was a fine scholar and gifted athlete."
— Brett Hoover