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Margaret Washington, retired professor of history and bestselling author, receives Distinguished Service Award

Margaret Washington, whose long career in academia included time as a professor and administrator at Sac State, has received a Distinguished Service Award from the Sacramento State Alumni Association. (Graphic courtesy Sac State Alumni Association)

Margaret Washington always knew what she would do with her life.

“I'm a teacher. That's just what I've always wanted to do,” she said. “I had two younger brothers, and I used to bribe them to sit and let me teach them. And even when I was an undergraduate at Sac State, I would, once a week, teach Black history down at the Oak Park Library.”

Washington has spent much of her life and career researching and educating others about the experiences of Black people in America, as well as women’s history, race and emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and other topics.

For her contributions to Sac State and to society, Washington has received a Distinguished Service Award from the Sacramento State Alumni Association. She and six other Distinguished Alumni Awards recipients will be honored at an Oct. 19 reception and dinner.

Washington’s long career in academia began in her hometown of Sacramento, when she earned her bachelor’s degree in History from Sac State in 1968. She received a master’s from New York University and Ph.D. from UC Davis.

In the ’70s, she held administrative roles at Sac State and American River College and taught at Sac State and UC Davis. She taught at several colleges and universities before landing at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1988, where she taught through her retirement in 2021 and is now the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History Emeritus.

In 1995, along with her former father-in-law George Creel, a former Sac State professor, Washington established Sac State’s James B. Creel Humanitarian Award, in honor of her 18-year-old son who died of brain cancer in 1994. The scholarship helps those who “demonstrate humanitarian values, independent thought, ethical behavior, and who plan to enter public service.”  

Washington is tthe author of multiple publications, including the bestselling and award-winning book Sojourner Truth’s America, and has appeared on CNN, the History Channel and PBS.

"I owe a lot to Sac State. I feel like I lucked out with Sac State, both in terms of getting my degree and in terms of them doing whatever they could to further my career.” -- Margaret Washington

At Sac State, Washington was a dedicated activist and leader. She was a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student-led civil rights advocacy group, and also helped form the University’s Black Student Union, which led the drive to establish Sac State’s Educational Opportunity Program.

In 1967, Washington met Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader spoke at Sac State.

“It was unbelievable. I got to shake his hand. I didn't even want to wash my hands,” she said. “But the saddest thing was, the next year, he died. And I led the protests down to the Capitol” the day after King’s May 4, 1968, assassination.

“The Black Student Union stayed up all night organizing that protest,” in solidarity with students from local high schools and UC Davis.

Washington, who lives in New York and frequently visits Sacramento, said she appreciates that Sac State has added so many services and supports a diverse group of students, especially those from underrepresented communities.

“It's quite different, but I think it's different for the better, and I sort of feel like I had something to do with that because it's more of an open environment now,” she said. “It was pretty rigid in the ’60s.”

Washington said she was surprised when she found out she was a Distinguished Service Award recipient but that she’s grateful for the support Sac State has provided her throughout her career.

“I just want to say that I feel very honored, and I owe a lot to Sac State,” she said. “I feel like I lucked out with Sac State, both in terms of getting my degree and in terms of them doing whatever they could to further my career.”

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About Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson joined the Sac State communications team in 2022 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at the Sacramento Bee as an audience engagement producer and reporter. He graduated from Sac State with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism in 2018. He plays video games, watches pro wrestling, and loves spending time with his wife and cat.

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