Items from the Purdue University African American Students, Alumni and Faculty collection
Black History Month is a great time to take a look back in Purdue’s history and honor our African American pioneers, the people who broke new ground and paved the way for others. Actually, any time is the right time to honor people who have succeeded, but particularly those who faced obstacles outside the norm of typical student life.
If one flips through the Debris yearbook from the earliest years in Purdue’s history, it becomes clear from the atmosphere that is portrayed, the cartoons that are illustrated, and the words that are used that students were not always kind or inclusive towards one another. Although all students struggle from time to time, it is important to remember that people of color, or any people who differed from the majority, faced additional struggles inside and outside the classroom, and their voices are not always included in these historical accounts of student life. We believe this creates even more cause to celebrate, as a means of honoring those individuals who succeeded despite the odds.
According to historical accounts in the Archives, in 1944 there were twelve African American students at Purdue (Cornelius 10), and records show 145 black students in 1965. Thirty years later, during the 1994-1995 school year, there were 1,175. In 2015, the number was only a bit higher, at 1,183.
Below are some of the Purdue “firsts” among the African American student population:
1890, Purdue’s First Black Graduate
George W. Lacey is noted as having graduated from Purdue in Pharmacy. He is not found in the Debris yearbook, but he is mentioned elsewhere as having been Purdue’s first black graduate. His name is found in the 1890 Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette with the listing of those who graduated from the Purdue School of Pharmacy that year. Fred Whitford, author of The Grand Old Man of Purdue University and Indiana Agriculture: A Biography of William Carroll Latta, also makes mention of Lacey as being the first black Purdue graduate (Whitford 37).
Or was it David Robert Lewis?
David Robert Lewis has also been noted in Purdue’s historical accounts as the University’s first black graduate. He was from Greensburg, Indiana, and he earned a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1894. His senior thesis was titled “Highway Road Construction.”
Click to learn more about Lewis.
One problem in identifying the first African American graduate of Purdue, is that although Purdue began offering courses in 1874, the first records that include images of students are in the Debris yearbook, which did not exist until 1889. Therefore, the possibility exists that neither Lacey nor Lewis were the first African American graduate from Purdue– it is possible that a student who graduated prior to invention of the yearbook may have been African American, but thus far there is no record in the University Archives that confirms this. Official university records did not include race or ethnicity prior to 1974.
Other Early African American Graduates
Richard Wirt Smith graduated from the School of Pharmacy in 1904.
Smith in a Purdue Pharmacy Lab in 1904.
Indianapolis Recorder, February 4, 1939
Per Mr. Smith’s obituary in the Indianapolis Recorder, February 4, 1939, he died a successful druggist, at the young age of 54.
1905, John Henry Weaver, Pharmacy
As noted in John Henry Weaver’s Debris entry, he was also a member of the track team for 4 years. Sadly, as mentioned in Alexandra Cornelius’ research, “Purdue teams, like other national sports teams, became segregated in the 1910s and 1920s. They remained segregated until 1947, when black attorney Willard Ransom, a Purdue alumnus, challenged the University, and a student protest led to a black football player being put into the game.” Cornelius found other evidence that life must have been difficult for black students in the early years of the 20th century. Her research has provided valuable evidence of early African American life at Purdue and is used frequently in the Archives.
1905, Samuel Saul Dargan graduated from Purdue with a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1905. He went on to become the first black man to earn a Law Degree from Indiana University (1909). He was curator of the IU Law Library for 39 years and assisted many law school students during that time.
More about Dargan
1913, David Nelson Crosthwait Jr., Mechanical Engineering
David Crosthwait became a pioneer in the field of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning, and is known for finding a way to heat Radio City Music Hall.
More about Crosthwait
Who was the first black woman to attend Purdue? As one turns the pages of the earliest Purdue Debris yearbooks, very few females look up from the pages. Even fewer black females are present. Per Caitlyn Marie Stypa, in her 2013 master’s thesis, Purdue Girls: The Female Experience at a Land-Grant University, 1887-1913: “While university publications make it difficult to determine who the first black woman was to enroll in or graduate from Purdue University, it is quite certain that she was not a student until after 1913.” Stypa goes on to write that “as late as 1911, black women made up just one-third of one percent of female college and university students. Common reasons for the low enrollment rate included lack of funds or outright discrimination” (Stypa 5).
As mentioned earlier, the fact that prior to 1974, a student’s permanent record did not include any racial or ethnic identification makes efforts to locate the first African American students a difficult task.
1910, First African American Women
One of the first black females to be found in the Debris yearbook appears in the middle of this photograph of the 1910 Junior Pharmacy Class. If one looks for her in the following years, she does not appear. Not every student had their photograph taken for the Debris, which makes it difficult to rely upon as a source for verifying the first African American students at Purdue; however, as one of the few early historical records containing images, the Debris yearbook is often our best available source for finding clues about Purdue’s early African American students. Because this woman could not be identified in later issues of the yearbook, it is possible that she was a student who did not finish her degree at Purdue. [Editor’s note, 2023: this woman is likely Rhoygnette Webb. To learn more about Webb and the process of discovering her identity, read “The Search for Miss Webb” https://blogs.lib.purdue.edu/asc/2020/04/23/the-search-for-miss-webb/]
1910, Junior Pharmacy Class
1913, Summer School for Teachers
In this photograph from the 1913 Debris, one finds another black woman. Her name is not noted, but she participated in Purdue’s Summer School for Teachers, which included Indiana high school and college students from around the state. It is unknown whether she was a full-time student enrolled in courses (outside of the Summer School for Teachers) at Purdue.
1910, Summer School for Teachers
1927, Inez Mason
In 1927, Inez Mason was the first cited member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, an early Greek organization established for African-American college women. She received a Bachelor of Science degree the same year. Her membership in the sorority is noted under her photo in the 1927 Debris.
Inez Mason, 1927 Debris
1931, Thelma F. McDonald
McDonald, 1931 Debris
No further information has been located in the Archives about Thelma McDonald.
1932, Silance Sisters
Sisters Delia and Ella Belle Silance of Lafayette appear to be two of the first black female graduates of Purdue. Both graduated with distinction and are shown below in the 1932 Debris.
Silance Sisters, 1932 Debris
“…Male black students could only live in West Lafayette in International House on University Avenue. However, black female students were denied the right and had to live across the river. ‘Practice House’ was a requirement in order to earn a degree in Home Economics. It was a program of 6 weeks duration, during which time home making duties were rotated among the girls each week. During those weeks two girls roomed together in the house. However, I was assigned to a group of five which included a very well liked black student. Those making the room pairings were planning to assign her to her own room, thinking incorrectly that no one would want to room with her. But she did have a room mate and one of the white girls roomed alone. Therefore, all of the assignments had to be rescheduled to accommodate a class of five. Thankfully, those restrictions were lifted long ago.” (Source: The Way It Was at Purdue 1941-1945, by Esther Conelley Boonstra, HE ’45).
Read more of Connelly Boonstra’s firsthand account of Purdue in the early 1940s
1942 – International House established
The first members of International House, 1942
International House became the home for Purdue black male and international students, appearing in the Debris in 1942.
This page from the 1949 Debris describes International House. Click on the photo for a full view of the page.
Jean Douglas, 1945 Debris
If one searches the Debris for the Home Economics graduates for 1945, the lone black face that looks up from the pages is Jean Douglas. She is most likely the student mentioned in Esther Conelley’s account above.
1940s-50s, Purdue Athletics
As mentioned previously, Purdue athletic teams remained segregated until at least 1947. The pages of the Debris yearbook rarely mention black student athletes before 1950. According to Athletics sources, the first African American students to join the Purdue football team were Herman Murray and Lively Bryant, both in 1949. The Purdue student newspaper reported that Herman Murray played in practice games of the “B Team” against the freshmen as early as November 1948 (Exponent, November 13, 1948). Murray became the first African American Boilermaker to play in an official football game when Purdue played Northwestern at Ross Ade Stadium on November 11, 1950. The 1950 Debris yearbook shows Herman Murray in the team photograph for the Football “B” team. Murray, a tackle, received his varsity letter in 1951.
Lundy, 1955 Debris
In 1955, Lamar Lundy was a center for the Purdue basketball team.
Many other exceptional black athletes would one day follow in their footsteps.
1955, first African American Woman to Earn Ph.D.
In 1955 Dr. Delores Cooper Shockley became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Purdue and in the United States. Read more about her
1968, first African American Faculty Member
It was not until 1968, when Helen Bass Williams was hired, that Purdue had a member of the faculty who was African American. Williams was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement before coming to Purdue. She was hired as an instructor in French and a counselor in the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education.
More about Helen Bass Williams
1975, The National Society of Black Engineers
The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) began as the Society of Black Engineers (SBE) and was founded at Purdue University in the 1970s. Because of this, Purdue is also known as the mother chapter of NSBE. The National Society of Black Engineers came into being as a result of a conference planned and hosted by SBE at Purdue in April 1975.
Per the Purdue University Minority Engineering web page:
“In the early 1970s, only 20 percent of minority engineers stayed in the engineering program after their first year. With this low retention rate, there was a large disparity in the student population. John Logan, Edward Coleman, George Smith, Stanley Kirtley, Brian Harris, and Anthony Harris became known as the Chicago Six, as they took action to help their fellow students. In 1975, they founded the Black Society of Engineers (BSE) with the help of their advisor Arthur Bond at Purdue. Anthony Harris proposed changing the name to Society of Black Engineers (SBE) in 1976 and he began reaching out to engineering programs and advisors throughout the nation, proposing a national organization and collaboration. In 1976, the first national conference was held at Purdue University and included participation from 32 schools and 48 students from all parts of the country.” More Information
Anthony Harris, one of the society’s founding members, was named chairman of the national advisory board for the society in 2007. He is president and CEO of Campbell/Harris Security Equipment Company, a manufacturer of equipment that detects contraband, explosives and “dirty bombs.” Its primary customers include the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue in 1975 and an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1979. He was named a Purdue Outstanding Mechanical Engineer in 1999.
1978, Kassandra Agee – Purdue’s First Black Homecoming Queen
In 1978, as a sophomore, Kassandra Agee was elected as Purdue’s first African American Homecoming Queen, following an extensive and energetic campaign. Kassandra “Katie” Agee (now Chandler) took part in many activities on campus. She was a member of Alpha Lambda Delta freshman honors society, Purdue Pals, the Black Voices of Inspiration Choir, and the Society of Minority Managers. In addition, Agee also served as a social counselor for the Business Opportunity Program in the School of Management and was a member of the Mortar Board senior honors society at the time of her graduation. Following graduation, she was successfully employed at a variety of businesses, including the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Exxon, Dow Chemical, and Procter & Gamble, as well as running her own information technology business.
1990, Robert J. Taylor (M.E. ’60), Purdue’s first black trustee
“Taylor named Purdue trustee” Taylor served as a member of Purdue’s board of trustees until 1996.
1990, Tarrus Richardson was elected as Purdue Student Body President
In 1990, Tarrus Richardson became the first black Purdue Student Body President, with 70% of the vote. Richardson was very active on campus. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from Purdue in 1991and a MBA from Harvard Business School in 1996. He later became CEO of IMB Development Corporation.
There are so many more diverse individuals in Purdue history who could be featured, and the Archives looks forward to continuing to preserve the histories of these individuals and share them with you. It is an honor to highlight the lives of Purdue pioneers who faced tremendous obstacles and persevered, forging the way for future generations of Boilermakers.
As part of Black History Month, and beyond, we aim to celebrate all individuals who helped make Purdue University the outstanding institution of higher learning it is today. To learn more about early African American life at Purdue, please contact us to view the references cited below, as well as related collections on the topic, in the Archives.
Blog post by Mary A. Sego (’82), Processing Assistant, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections. Post updated 7/29/19 with additional source information about Herman Murray, by Sammie Morris.
Cornelius, Alexandra, “Evolution of the Black Presence at Purdue University,” (1994, July 5) Purdue University African American Students, Alumni and Faculty collection, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections (Box 1, Folder 10), Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.
Whitford, F., & Martin, A. (2005). The grand old man of Purdue University and Indiana agriculture : A biography of William Carroll Latta. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press.
Stypa, Caitly Marie (2013). Purdue Girls: The Female Experience at a Land-Grant University, 1887-1913, Unpublished master’s thesis, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
Boonstra, Esther Conelley (1945). The Way it was at Purdue 1941-1945, Esther Conelly Boonstra collection, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, (Communal Collections 3, Placement 20), Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.
Debris Yearbook, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. earchives.lib.purdue.edu, 18 February, 2018.
The records of the Black Cultural Center (BCC) are a treasure trove of source material on African American student life at Purdue, dating from circa 1969 to present. In partnership with the BCC Library, the Archives makes these records available for research and study.
The 2009 film Black Purdue, created by Jamar White, Derek Fordjour, Keith David, and the Purdue Black Alumni Organization provides excellent primary source material. The film includes interviews with many of the students and faculty involved in the early days of the founding of the Black Cultural Center. This film is available through both the Archives and through the media collection of the Black Cultural Center.