Missouri S&T’s Black history: challenges overcome

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On February 2, 2021

Image of Chi Epsilon chapter from 1960

The 1960 chapter of Chi Epsilon, a civil engineering honor society, at S&T. Lelia Thompson Flagg, pictured front row third from the right, was the first African-American female to graduate from S&T. Image from the 1960 Rollamo Yearbook.

As Dr. Larry Gragg notes in Forged in Gold: Missouri S&T’s First 150 Years, Missouri S&T was segregated until 1950, and “the campus culture well into the 20th century reflected the broader American culture of bigotry and intolerance.”

But change began in 1950 with two brave African American students. George E. Horne and Elmer Bell Jr. were the first Black students to attend classes and live on campus at S&T. They roomed together among their white male classmates in a dormitory with no air conditioning. For relief from the heat, they left their door open and, as Horne recalls, often heard “cat calls and the N-word” from white students in the hallway.

Since that time, Gragg says that faculty, staff and administration have sought to make the campus a more welcoming place – one that valued all students and employees – and to create an environment where all could succeed.

Over the years, a determination to succeed and a sense that they had to perform at a higher level than the rest of the class drove many African American students, says Gragg, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of history. In his book, Gragg quotes S&T electrical engineering major Ron Porter, who explained in 1994, “Every day, when I get up and go to class, I feel like I’ve got something to prove to white students.”

And although Horne never completed his degree from S&T, he told Gragg in a 2019 interview that he considers the experience as positive and believes that he and Bell were pioneers for the African American students to come after them.

Accomplished African American alumni

As part of its 150th anniversary celebration, Missouri S&T highlighted a few of its distinguished alumni. There are too many to feature all, but this selection of distinguished Black alumni offers a glimpse into the outstanding achievements that show how students persevered and paved a way for others.

Lelia Thompson Flagg, who earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering in 1960, was the first African American woman to graduate from Missouri S&T and one of only 11 women on campus during her freshman year in 1956. She excelled at math in high school and was encouraged by her teachers to study engineering. When she arrived at Missouri S&T for the first time, there was no campus housing available to her. Instead, she lived with a Black family south of campus while earning her degree. After graduation, she held engineering positions in California and Illinois before returning to S&T as an assistant director of admissions.

Louis Smith, who earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1966, was a former president of AlliedSignal Inc., which bought Honeywell and adopted its name. Smith recalls, when as a young engineer for AlliedSignal, his friends were talking about their goals and, when asked, Smith said that he wanted to be president of the division. “My friends laughed at me and said, ‘there is no way an African American will ever be president of this place,’” says Smith. “I still see some of those people and many still have the same job they had then — they saw themselves as limited.” Smith later became president and chief executive officer of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Kwesi Sipho Umoja, who earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1967, says that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death had a profound effect on his perception of the future. Umoja, then known as Eugene Jackson, was one of only 19 Black students on the S&T campus when he was in school. He would go on to start the first Black-owned and operated national radio network, National Black Network, in 1971. In 1994, he helped launch the World African Network Cable System, which distributed news by satellite to 125 Black-focused stations in the United States.

Zebulun Nash, who earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in 1972, was part of a team that got its start by raising funds for the creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship through S&T’s Miner Alumni Association. It took 20 years, but the scholarship endowment finally became a reality for the university’s students. Nash’s career included service in the Peace Corps in Kenya in the 1970s and a successful managerial career with ExxonMobil.

— Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, who earned a master of science degree in engineering management in 1972, served in the U.S. Army for over three decades in leadership positions from Korea to Germany to the Pentagon. He also served as chief and commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1996 to 2000. In 2001, he founded the Ravens Group, a firm that provides professional services to federal government agencies.

— Dr. Tamiko Youngblood, who earned a bachelor of science degree in mining engineering in 1992, a master’s in engineering management in 1994 and a Ph.D. in engineering management in 1994, was the first Black woman to graduate from Missouri S&T’s mining engineering program and later became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from S&T. “I’ve always seen myself as being out in front, a leader,” she said in a 1997 interview with Missouri S&T Magazine. “I’ve always seen myself as breaking down walls to let more people through.”

Gragg explains in his book that while the university is a different place than the institution Horne and Bell encountered in 1950, systemic challenges remain. Well into the 21st century, there are few Black faculty and staff, and in a 2017 campus climate survey, some of them, along with Black students, indicated that they “had experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct.”

“Every day, Missouri S&T strives to build a more welcoming and inclusive environment,” says Missouri S&T Chancellor Mo Dehghani. “We cannot erase or change the past, but we must work to make sure that S&T will become a better, more welcoming place for African American students.”

Read more Miner Stories on Missouri S&T’s 150th website.

NOTE: Portions of this story are excerpted from the Forged in Gold chapter “Making the Miner Campus More Welcoming.”

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