The late Cliffornia Wimberley was remembered this week as a pioneering school board member and African-American community leader who helped bring about the merger of the Wake County and Raleigh City school systems.
Wimberley, who died Nov. 22, was praised at Tuesday’s Wake County school board meeting as a “gentle giant” and an inspiration to all people. Wimberley, 85, served on the Raleigh City school board and later the Wake County school board from 1973 to 1977.
“As a school board member, she worked tirelessly and courageously to bring about a successful merger of the Raleigh City Schools and Wake County Schools – of which we still reap the benefits of to this day,” said Wake school board member Keith Sutton.
Sutton said Wimberley’s service on the school board led to personal hardships during a time of racial tension. He noted how Wimberley’s husband was denied employment, her son was denied use of a public restroom, her daughter was denied participation in a summer day camp and the family was denied the right to purchase a home in the neighborhood of their choice.
Sutton also noted Wimberley’s role as a female elected official in Wake County in the 1970s.
“But what she was equally proud of was the fact that she helped usher in change, and provided leadership in doing so as a woman,” Sutton said.
“School board members, we’re a dime a dozen. There were plenty of them then and there will continue to be plenty of us in the future. But what was significant about Cliff Wimberley was that she was a black woman.
“You see there were not many women in leadership, and especially politics, in that time period – black or white. She and a woman by the name of Elizabeth Cofield who sat on the Wake County Board of Commissioners were quite unique.
“Nobody recruited Cliff Wimberley to run. At that time, men were asked to run, not women. She was even discouraged by some not to run so that she didn’t pull away votes from her colleague at that time, Vernon Malone. But she ran anyway and they both made history, and of this she was most proud.”
The election of Wimberley and Malone to the Raleigh school board in 1973 marked the first time that two African-Americans were serving on the board at the same time. It wouldn’t be until 2013 when Sutton and Monika Johnson-Hostler were elected that two African-American school board members again served on the Wake school board at the same time.
On Tuesday, Johnson-Hostler was elected the board’s new vice chairwoman. Johnson-Hostler cited Wimberley and Rosa Parks as role models. Tuesday marked the 60th anniversary of Parks’ historic refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., to a white man.
“I think it’s very fitting that I’m reminded that two trailblazers – Rosa Parks and Cliff Wimberley – came before me to blaze the trails and to say indeed as an African-American woman there’s nothing that I can’t do, and setting that role model for my own daughter and the children behind me,” Johnson-Hostler said.
In addition to her service on the board, Wimberley’s lengthy list of accomplishments included being the first female president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, the city’s oldest African-American civil-rights organization. Professionally, Wimberley was a school teacher and retired as the chief of vocational rehabilitation programs in the state’s Division of Youth Services,
Sutton said he initially had planned to drape a black cloth with the initials “C.W.” over his name plate at the board table to symbolize how he was standing on Wimberley’s shoulders. Instead, Sutton placed the cloth over a seat in the front row of the public seating area to symbolize how Wimberley had attended so many school board meetings over the years.
Members of Wimberley’s family came to Tuesday’s meeting and thanked the board for recognizing her service.
“My mother loved education and it was a big part of her, not just from teaching,” said Carmen Wimberley Cauthen, Wimberley’s daughter. “Everybody she talked to she taught.”