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Author, Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of WWII
Retired CEO, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance
In 1946, when Ivan J. Houston, BS 48, returned to UC Berkeley after World War II, he and his wife, Philippa, were denied married student housing because they were African American. The letterman track and field runner had just left Europe with a Purple Heart and jubilant Italians regaling him and his fellow soldiers as liberators from fascists and Nazis. So the couple moved into an apartment building for black shipyard workers in Richmond, miles from campus. It was a time in American history when black soldiers returning home from the war lived a dual existence — heroes abroad and still discriminated against at home.
In his 2009 memoir, Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II, Houston chronicles his experience with the Jim Crow rules of the American military while serving in the segregated 92nd Infantry Division during World War II.
“Many of us from the North, East, and West had never encountered the … racial discrimination and segregation we faced in the army,” Houston, 84, writes. “But we fought on and in the last weeks of the war achieved a remarkable victory with our 65-mile march through the Apennines … We defeated the Nazis and Italian Fascists … but we did not conquer Jim Crow.”
Houston’s desire to share his story stems from his belief that WWII black soldiers are still not getting their proper recognition. “Not many people know our story. When people think about Buffalo Soldiers they usually imagine those that came out of the West to fight the Indians in the 1800s,” Houston says. (African American regiments formed after the Civil War were nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” by American Indians.) “People don’t think about World War II Buffalo Soldiers. But the truth is, we fought gallantly against the Germans.”
Houston’s experience with segregation and discrimination in the infantry was a stark contrast to most of his life in California. Before going to war, he lived in an integrated, non-university student cooperative at Berkeley, surrounded by liberal white students. His education in Los Angeles high schools and at Berkeley was also integrated; he grew up with a sense that his intelligence and education would take him far.
And they did. After graduating from business school, Houston worked as an accountant for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., which was co-founded by his father, who also went to Cal. Houston retired as CEO in 1990, after helping Golden State Mutual Life profitably become one of the country’s largest black-owned companies. He also chaired the Golden State Minority Foundation, a philanthropic spinoff that has awarded more than $2.4 million in scholarships and grants to educational programs and students of color. Along the way, Houston was named among Harvard’s Business Leaders of the 20th Century and included in Ebony magazine’s “100 Most Influential Black Americans” list for 14 years.
“You just learn to move ahead in spite of adversity.”