“I had adjustments to make,” Riles, who had grown up in segregated Louisiana, said. “I didn’t know how white folks would treat me and so on and so forth. But I can tell you that the understanding and sensitivity of the faculty—and the students…. I had four or five fellows. We became very good friends.”
College hadn’t been in his plans when he moved to Flagstaff, but a chance encounter with Dunbar School’s principal, Cleo Murdoch, outside the one-room schoolhouse—now the Murdoch Community Center—led him to pursue his degree in education and history. She encouraged him to visit the Registrar’s office in what is now Old Main.
“Walking over, I said, ‘This woman must be out of her mind. I don’t have one penny and she’s sending me to the Registrar,’” Riles said in the 1996 interview. “I went in to talk to the Registrar, and he said, ‘Mrs. Murdoch sent you over here. We respect her very much.’ And he says, ‘You’re very lucky. We just got a grant from the federal government, through the National Youth Administration—NYA—and we can give you a job on the campus and we can pay you 25 cents an hour. You can make $15 a month and that will be enough to pay your tuition and buy your books. And since you’re living off campus if you do a little work outside you can make it.”
After graduating with his bachelor degree, Riles served during World War II as a pilot in the Air Force before returning to Flagstaff where he and Sturgeon Cromer worked to abolish segregation in public schools. They were successful in 1953, one year before the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public school unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1970, Riles was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction of California as the first Black executive officer in California State government, a position he held for 12 years.