Interview, Wilbur L. Gerst

June 13, 1980

Wilbur Gerst (1931-2003) was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, to a family of four children. His parents were both college educated. His father worked as the town tinsmith and his mother was a French teacher. He grew up without economic hardship in an integrated neighborhood, but attended segregated schools. Gerst graduated from high school in 1949 as the school valedictorian. He attended his father’s alma mater, Hampton Institute, in Virginia, and majored in physical education. After college, Gerst was drafted to the United States Army, where he became a First Lieutenant and served in the Korean War. In 1955, Gerst left the Army and married Doris Hurst. That same year, he accepted a job from his wife’s uncle as Area Supervisor of Recreation for the City Recreation Department in Rochester, New York. Gerst also worked at the Special Education School, as president of the Rochester Teacher’s Association, and as director of the Community Education Centers. He took courses at the State University of New York at Brockport and the University of Rochester, where he earned a master’s degree in special education. Gerst also earned a PhD from Syracuse University. He passed away July 14, 2003.

In this interview, Gerst talks about his childhood, obstacles he has faced because of his race, and the state of race relations in Rochester. Gerst remembers his childhood as being fairly happy and typical, but recalls a time when he was performing in a choir show at his school and a white friend ignored him because he was with other black students. Gerst reports that after high school, he had wanted to attend the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, but that the school did not accept students of color at the time. He also recalls that he wanted to study aeronautical engineering at California Technical School, but the professional options availabe to blacks were limited to “teacher, preacher, or doctor.” Gerst talks about experiencing discrimination at a coaching clinic at the University of Virginia in 1952, where he was made to wait until last to register and the white roommate he ended up with did not want to live with him. He reports how eventually, the two roommates began talking about race and ultimately helped bridge the gap between southern and northern, white and black coaches at the clinic. Gerst explains how when he moved north in the mid-1950s, he had hoped to find less segregation than he had experienced in the South, but that he continued to encounter discrimination in Rochester, where he was turned away from a coaching position because of his race.

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  • 1980s