“Rudy” Martin started out with a plan to collect the history of his family from its Texas roots to his home in Washington. It was at first a project for himself and his children. But the American studies scholar yearned for context, color, and regional history. He had to build a more complete story. He sought out distant family members, dove into ancient county records, and culled through population research in his quest to understand how he and his family have been shaped by race, religion, and, most importantly, place.
His book, On the Move: A Black Family’s Western Saga, is not simply a memoir, it’s a new view on the African American experience in the West—from his great-grandparents’ farm in Texas, to his own early childhood on a Wyoming dude ranch. His father became a Pentecostal minister in the Bay Area of California. And Martin had his own adventure into Washington where he has been a teacher, writer, and founding faculty member of The Evergreen State College.
He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught high school. Then he pursued a master’s degree at San Francisco State University and a teaching position at Modesto Junior College. Still, he was hungry for not just literature, but culture, art, and history. He needed to move on and pursue an interdisciplinary doctoral degree.
“My dad had a hell of a time dealing with the notion that I wanted to be an academic,” says Martin. “He kept saying, ‘You can’t make any money doing that.’” Twice when Martin was a young adult, his father approached him about changing paths, encouraging him to go to law school or medical school or even take a high paying job.
But Martin found a home in American studies, a field that got its start in the 1930s as an approach that included history, literature, economics, art, media, sociology, and anthropology. In the late 1960s, when Martin was looking for a graduate program, the interdisciplinary study was gaining a foothold on the West Coast. Washington State University offered Martin a teaching assistant position right off the bat, he says. The move was in spite of his wife’s protests. “We set up in a pre-fab World War II shack right out on the Moscow-Pullman Highway,” he says. “She said, where are you taking me?”
It was a great time to be at the University with faculty like Martin’s advisor Mary G. Land, Lewis Buchanan of the English department, and Raymond Muse, the chairman of history. In those days American studies was sort of a bootstrap outfit, says Martin.
There was also a batch of bright, active, and interesting students around him. “I was very serious about doing more history, and very much interested in African American studies,” he says. Martin taught the first African American literature course ever offered at the University.
Martin and his classmates advocated for a black studies program at WSU. “In the spring of 1970 I was the guy who stood before the assembled crowd in front of the CUB and said, ‘Well the administration does not want to put in our black studies program and so we’re leaving.’ We had found places for every black student on campus who wanted to go.” Understandably, his doctoral thesis looked at literature and political movements—and their interactions.
Before he finished his dissertation, Martin was lured away from Pullman by the prospect of joining the founding faculty at the newly-conceived Evergreen State College. “I couldn’t pass it up,” he says. “There was this excitement about building a college from the ground. How many people in the whole world ever have that chance?”
That first year, the 999-acre densely wooded campus had only one building and five or six trailers. “It was a mud hole,” says Martin. The employees had to navigate the property on boardwalks. He was one of 18 planning faculty, along with three deans and three vice presidents. Though the campus wasn’t ready for the students, the instructors were. In the fall of 1971 Evergreen welcomed its first freshmen. They met in community halls, in public libraries, even out in the woods. “We didn’t need walls,” says Martin.
Evergreen attracted nontraditional students, and the faculty strove to teach in nontraditional ways. Martin taught a course called “Contemporary American Minorities,” where Caucasian students were the minority in the class. The students were eager to go along with the experience, he says.
Martin finished his doctorate and enjoyed a full career at Evergreen, eventually becoming an administrator. When he retired in 1998 one of his key projects was his family book. In it, he was able to explore race, religion, and how geography can shape how people define themselves and others. It’s not the African American experience in the west, he says. But it sheds some light on one family’s path.
“By the time I came to racial and cultural political consciousness, as I am still doing, I think, it got clearer and clearer to me that there is no single African American experience,” he says. “You simply have to look carefully and get past ‘there’s a black one, that must mean…’ to seeing how very different things can be.”