Voices of M-A: Sam Stephens and Pam Wimberly Share Their Stories

by Sana Sheikholeslami and Sophie Zalipsky

Samuel Lorenzo Stephens exists as a cornerstone of the M-A campus, maintaining order in his maroon and gold windbreaker, but few people are familiar with his eventful journey from the country town of Griffin, Georgia to Atherton, California. We sat down for an interview to hear his story.

Looking back on his childhood in the South, Stephens has mixed emotions. “I think I had a great upbringing,” he recalled, and appreciated “the stuff that I learned how to do, such as growing my own food, raising my own chickens…going fishing.” In his youth, racial issues were seldom discussed inside and outside the home, but his family never “put other cultures down,” choosing instead to instill a universal respect in himself and his siblings. “We kinda saw that the whites had advantages over us, but we just accepted that and rolled with it,” he explained. “That was just the way of life back then.”

Stephens’ parents also emphasized the value of education, encouraging his “curious mind.” His public schooling, however, fell short. “In elementary school, we always had bomb threats,” he told us. “We were turning over boxes and looking up under desks,” searching for the bomb in the schoolyard at their teachers’ request, one of his earliest experiences with explicit, large scale racism.

Less violent disadvantages followed Stephens into high school. His high school experience coincided with the integration of Georgia schools in 1971, when he was placed in an integrated math class. “I was very concerned about things that seemed like they should’ve been equal, such as African Americans going to school with the white kids” he said, “nobody explained it to me.” He remembers raising his hand with a question only to have the teacher tell him, “Put your hand down, we don’t have time for that.”

Some of his fondest memories of high school took place on the football field, as did his final one. “When I played a sport I took it for real,” he explained, “I was trying to make a position and I hit their number one player, and he was a white guy.” Later that week, the principal approached him in the school hallway and told him to withdraw from school immediately, and he did.

“But that didn’t stop me!” he declared. Stephens decided to join the military, scoring well on his initial placement tests. High scores like his usually allowed the soldier to choose their field of work, but Stephens was told he was “half an inch too short” to become a military policeman, his job of choice. The sergeant told Stephens that he could be “a mechanic, a tanker, an infantry man… but none of that lit up” for him and he joined the medical unit. When he started his basic training, he asked a white classmate about his career choice, and the man told him he was training to be a military policeman. “This guy was much shorter than me!” he recalled, “I said, man they lied to me!”

Reflecting on this experience, Stephens mused that “they were trying to keep the sensitive jobs away from African Americans, jobs that we could [use to] get out in the world like computer technician and military police. I should’ve been with Bill Gates now with the computers,” he chuckled, “but really I lost out.”

Stephens enjoyed his medical work immensely, however. “I did psychiatry, ObGyn, ENT, emergency medicine… I could put an ET tube in your mouth and your nostrils and put it all the way down to your stomach, and I could start an IV on you and maybe even sew you up.”

During his military service, he was stationed for five years in Germany, where “they welcomed us with open arms.” He was impressed by the hospitality and generosity that the Germans showed him even as a foreigner. “It made a big difference in me,” he recalled. As a black man from the South, Stephens’s treatment in Germany was a “a big eye opener.” Without the same level of historic racism against black people, Europeans exhibited a politeness and comfort around him that Stephens had rarely encountered in white Americans.

One sergeant in particular carried a vendetta against Stephens. “He went all kinds of ways to try to bust me down,” said Stephens, “but it just didn’t happen.” As part of the medical unit, Stephens was required to cover the rifle range during training sessions. The sergeant had the schedules changed without informing Stephens, telling the white soldiers to arrive at the rifle range at 7:00 AM one morning. Stephens only found out about the schedule change from a white friend of his who updated him in the barracks the night before.

The following morning, however, Stephens found himself too sick to perform his duties. “I was sick, I was very sick, honest to god I still see that day!” he said. “But anyway, there was an obstacle in my way, and I said no, I gotta go.” He arrived at the rifle range two minutes after 7:00 to tell the sergeant that he was sick, but the sergeant insisted on serving him an Article 15, a demotion. The sergeant reported to Stephens’s Commanding Officer, who didn’t know of his illness and approved the Article 15 punishing him. “I had to accept it. Once you turn yourself over to the military, you belong to them, so I accepted it.” The doctor who treated Stephens, a colleague of his from the medical unit, vouched for him and informed the CO that he was sick, causing him to drop the Article 15 and restore his status.

Although he could have stayed and admittedly was not ready to leave Germany, Stephens requested orders to return to the U.S. After returning from the military, Stephens moved to Texas and later to California, hoping to experience the glamour he had seen in movies, and ended up a campus aid at M-A in 1995.

Sam Stephens, 1995

Pam Wimberly, a M-A legend 

Pam Wimberly has been a P.E. teacher at M-A for the past 48 years. Her experiences growing up in a military family in a racially divided society has shaped her unique perspective.

With Wimberly’s father in the army, Wimberly grew up both in the U.S. and abroad. Throughout her childhood, she lived in Butzbach, Germany, Naha Okinawa, Japan, Boston, Massachusetts, and Baltimore, Maryland.

In each new country, Wimberly had to assimilate to the new culture and language. She recalled, “When I lived in Okinawa, I had to learn Japanese and when I lived in Germany, I had to learn German.” Upon returning to high school in Baltimore, Wimberly had to learn a new language, and chose French, because the school did not offer German. She chuckled and said, “I should have taken Spanish.”

Wimberly did not feel treated differently because of her race until she and her family lived in Baltimore, Maryland. At her school, Wimberly was one of 18 African American students to graduate in a class of 700 students. She explained how at the time “Martin Luther King Jr. was out there trying to get things equal for everybody” and that racism was a huge issue. “There were all kinds of incidents that happened to me when I was a child because we weren’t treated equally,” Wimberly said.

The incident of racism that had the strongest affect on Wimberly occurred when she went on a road trip with a youth group from the church she attended at the military base. On the way back, when the group decided to stop at a restaurant to grab food, the others then realized that Wimberly would not be able to go to the restaurant. Instead, Wimberly would have to go around to the back door, where the restaurant worker could hand her food to eat in the bus.

The youth group agreed to this arrangement and went into the restaurant to eat. Wimberly shared, “That is something that sits with me forever, a lifetime because they weren’t strong enough to say ‘no, we’ll just go on and find somewhere else because Pam can’t eat here.’”

Wimberly’s parents’ experiences with racism also shaped her perspective. Growing up, Wimberly’s father would not share the gruesome parts of war with his kids, but Wimberly recalled the injustices her father endured when he returned to the U.S. from World War II— when “he tried to get a job, they said ‘you can shovel coal.’”

Wimberly described another incident her parents experienced when traveling in the South: “My dad had stopped to get them something to drink from the store. He was at the counter giving his money and then he looks over his shoulder and there’s a guy standing behind him with an ax.” Because Wimberly’s mother had a fair complexion the townspeople thought that a black man was illicitly traveling with a white woman.

Wimberly’s father had to literally run for his life and hide in his grandmother’s home. The sheriff eventually found him and arrested him for traveling with someone who looked like a white woman. It took the U.S. army to free Wimberly’s dad from jail.

Once Wimberly graduated high school, she began attending Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Wimberly was a first generation college student; her father graduated 8th grade and her mother graduated high school. “I know if I did it, anyone can do it. [It] just takes hard work,” she explained. For Wimberly, at the end of a hard day’s work the “silver lining is that you can go to college and better yourself.”

A couple months before graduation, “ the assistant superintendent [of the school district] came back looking for African-American teachers,” Wimberly recalled. Wimberly had an interview, but did not think much of it. She continued to plan on attending Kent State University in Ohio, where she hoped to receive her Masters Degree.

One month before graduation, Wimberly received a phone call from the assistant superintendent requesting a three-way call interview. A few weeks later, Wimberly was offered the job. “So my parents put me on a plane in August, I flew west, and I’ve been here ever since, 48 years.”

Pam Wimberly first year at M-A

The M-A Wimberly arrived at was very different from M-A today. Wimberly remembered, “First day, helicopters flying around, National Guard on campus, there were fights, it was not a pretty picture.” Racial tensions were so high at M-A that the school was “in turmoil.”

Today, Wimberly is not completely aware of race relations on campus but she does know that M-A students struggle with unity. She said, “I really wish people didn’t have their own spots at lunch time, that people would get themselves together.” Wimberly knows that the situation is complex and many factors are involved, such as the neighborhood students live in and individual comfort zones. But Wimberly still shared, “I just really wish we could be more diverse in that area.”

Both Stephens and Wimberly believe in the importance of education, both as the cumulation of their own experiences and in their role at M-A.

Wimberly experienced setbacks on a personal level, but she still believes in the power of education. She knows not everyone comes to M-A equipped with the same tools to learn, “but there are lots and lots of resources on this campus to help you do your best.”

Wimberly reflected upon the evolution of M-A,“There was turmoil on this campus, look what has happened since then, 48 years. Now we have a very diverse campus, people are treated equally, and it’s a great school to go to.”

Stephens loves his job at M-A and sees it as a chance to guide the future generation. “This is a great school, an excellent school, and there’s a lot of knowledge here and a lot of stuff that wasn’t offered to me when I was in school.” His message to M-A students is to “put your foot forward and enjoy these other races at the school” and to “get together as a student body.” He sees the integration of his high school as a test run whose effects are felt throughout the U.S. today. Though he wishes he had not forced to stay “on the back burner” in terms of his education, Stephens sees his children studying biology, psychology, nursing, and computer science, and concludes that “it must’ve been in me for them to have it!”“

All kinds of obstacles came at me through my lifetime, but I overcame ’em and I’m here today to talk to you about it,” Stephens concluded. “I’ve learned that if you don’t know how to read the perceptions of people towards you, you’re gonna lose out. I enjoy everybody regardless of what race you are or where you’re from, and I’d love to see us get together. Let’s all be one, let’s all have good spirit, I’m here for you.”