When Kwame Salter came to UW-Whitewater in 1964, he was one of 12 black students on a campus of 5,000. The Milwaukee native had always attended integrated schools, but on campus he found a different kind of diversity — a cultural diversity that mixed urban black kids with white rural farm kids and suburban kids from the greater Chicago area.
“Once you free your mind from the societal brainwashing that people who don’t look like you are fundamentally different,” said Salter, “you will find lifelong friends — and associate with them based on who they are, not what they are. Once you connect on this basis, you discover that you have a lot in common, like the struggle to adapt to the adult world and new expectations. Regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, all young people in college are struggling to find their identity.”
Salter returns to campus on April 22, 2017, to accept an Distinguished Alumni Award for Professional Achievement as part of the university’s Founders Day celebration.
A talented and hardworking basketball player who was promoted to varsity his freshman year, as an undergraduate Salter found that academic success soon overtook his success on the courts.
“It was a way to get recognition. I got invited to events with the chancellor, I wrote for the Royal Purple, I represented UW-Whitewater when students came to visit.”
On campus, Salter found professors who further opened his eyes and motivated him.
“You could actually talk to the faculty about both academics and life,” he said. “Dr. Gerald Mertens taught German literature and was one of the speakers in my Freshman Forum class. He expanded my horizons and said I reminded him of Kwame Nkrumah,” the first prime minister and president of Ghana, whom Mertens had taught at Lincoln University. “Soon, my friends were calling me Kwame,” said Salter, who had his name legally changed in 1973.
Mertens called on Salter to be strong and remain inquisitive throughout his life, a calling that he has taken to heart.
Salter graduated magna cum laude in 1968 with a degree in education and went on to earn a master’s degree in educational administration and policy studies from UW-Madison. He was accepted into the Ph.D. program at UW-Madison and completed his residence credits, but his social and political activism pushed him into another direction. He served as the director of UW-Madison's Afro-American Race Relations and Cultural Center and was elected to three 3-year terms on the Madison Metropolitan Board of Education. While serving, Salter was elected by his peers to be vice president and served four consecutive years as president of the board of education. He also ran for mayor of Madison, Wisconsin.
As executive director of the Dane County Parent Council, Inc., Salter oversaw the growth and expansion of the Dane County and City of Madison's Head Start Program and then embarked upon a corporate career that spanned 22 years at Oscar Mayer-General Foods and Kraft, retiring as senior vice president of human resources for Kraft Foods, Global Supply Chain function.
Salter received the UW-Whitewater Outstanding Recent Alumni Award in 1983, and is one of only nine alumni to receive both.
In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Concordia University College of Business in Chicago teaching MBA cohorts, he is the author of “Striving While Black: A Playbook for the Seriously Ambitious” and two other books. He is also a contributing columnist for the Wednesday Journal weekly newspaper in Oak Park, Illinois, in addition to being a prolific blogger on LinkedIn.
Reflecting on his years on campus, Salter said, “UW-Whitewater helped me focus on what’s most important. It’s big enough to expose students to really bright faculty members, and small enough for the faculty to know and care about their students.”
“UW-Whitewater was an amazing incubator for me,” he said. “I’ve traveled the world, and my experiences and exposures on campus have served me well.”
Salter has four adult children, along with five grandchildren, and lives in Oak Park, Illinois, with his wife, Phyllis V. Harris. In memory of his father and mother, who were both teachers, Kwame established a scholarship in their names for UW-Whitewater students going into teaching.