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Exhibit - The African American Presence at MSU: Pioneers, Groundbreakers, and Leaders

On May 31, 1907, Myrtle Craig, the first African American woman to graduate from what was then Michigan Agricultural College (M.A.C), received her diploma from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the honored guest at the college’s Semi-Centennial Jubilee celebration. Succeeding generations of African Americans made their marks on the history of the university.

It is known that African American students were enrolled at the university as early as 1900. Others followed, attracted by the land-grant mission that promoted “the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” in agriculture and the mechanical arts. By the end of the 1960s, 1,600 African American students were enrolled and were represented in most degree programs.

While their numbers were never large in the first half of the century, African American students enrolled at the university exemplified leadership and achievement not only in their scholastic and extracurricular activities but also in their careers. Like the students who came before them, African American faculty and administrators who joined the Michigan State University community made their presence felt through their contributions.

Notable Graduates

William O. Thompson, class of 1904, was the first known African American graduate of Michigan Agricultural College. 
 

Myrtle Craig Mowbray, class of 1907, arrived at M.A.C. after graduating from a small school in Missouri. She faced many obstacles during her time on campus. When she first began at M.A.C. in 1903, she lived with Addison Brown, the secretary to the State Board of Agriculture and cooked as a way to pay her rent. She then moved in with Chance Newman, an Assistant Professor of Drawing. She worked as a sales clerk in a clothing store and as a waitress. On May 31, 1907, she received her Bachelor of Science in home economics becoming, the first African American woman to graduate from Michigan Agricultural College. President Jonathan Snyder praised her as a young woman “of more than ordinary ability,” “considerable dignity,” and “good sense.” Craig chose a career as an educator, serving on the faculty of Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri for more than 20 years. In 1990, Michigan State University established the Myrtle Craig Mowbray Scholarship in her honor.

Gideon Smith, class of 1916, was an exceptionally talented athlete, becoming one of the first two Black college football players in the country and one of the first to play professional football. Starting at left tackle for the Aggies during the 1913, 1914, and 1915 seasons, Smith was the first African American to play football at M.A.C. He also served as secretary and treasurer of the Cosmopolitan Club. Smith graduated with his Bachelor of Science in agriculture in 1916. After serving in World War I, Smith joined the faculty of Hampton Institute in Virginia as football coach and professor of physical education from 1921 until his retirement in 1955. He was named to the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992.

Everett C. Yates, class of 1916, was the first African American individual to play in the college cadet band and orchestra. Yates was a percussionist in both of these organizations that provided music for parades and dances that took place on campus. He graduated with fellow classmate Gideon Smith receiving his Bachelor of Science in 

horticulture. Even though the two men graduated together, it was not until recently that Yates’ legacy was recognized. After graduating from M.A.C., Yates went on to become a successful teacher, teaching music in schools around the country.

Delbert McCulloch Prillerman, class of 1917, studied horticulture at M.A.C. Returning to West Virginia after receiving his bachelor’s degree, Prillerman took a teaching position at Bluefield Institute.

Benjamin Livingston Goode, class of 1925, left Michigan State with an impressive record as an athlete. In addition to being a member of the varsity football team and varsity track squad, he competed in basketball and baseball as a freshman. Following graduation, he joined the faculty of West Virginia Collegiate Institute as football coach and assistant professor of agriculture.

Clarence Banks, class of 1926, earned his Bachelor of Science in agriculture, majoring in dairy science. He was a member of the varsity cross-country team and the freshman track team. After graduating, he joined the faculty of Mechanical, Technical, and Industrial School in Bordentown, New Jersey.

William H. Smith, class of 1937, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. While at Michigan State, he lettered in football and track. Following graduation, he became a surveyor for the State Department of Transportation as one of the first African American field engineers in the state. His career as an engineer spanned 40 years, and he achieved the highest rank of any African American individual in the department’s history by the time of his retirement.
 

Iverson C. Bell, class of 1949, was awarded a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine. At Michigan State he was a member of the Junior American Veterinary Medicine Association, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and Howland House. He was one of the first African Americans to graduate with a veterinary degree. He was an instructor at the veterinary hospital at the Tuskegee Institute before moving to Terre Haute, Indiana and opening his own veterinary practice. He was active in many professional and civic organizations and received awards, including the Distinguished Veterinary Alumnus Award, for his efforts combating racial discrimination and fostering diversity in the veterinary profession.

Don Coleman, class of 1952, earned his bachelor’s degree in business and public service. A varsity football player, he was named All-American in 1951. Coleman was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Blue Key, a national scholastic and service fraternity.

Reginald “Ricky” Ayala, class of 1954, earned his Bachelor of Arts in hotel management. Ricky was one of the first African American varsity basketball players at Michigan State. After graduation, he played for the Harlem Globetrotters for two years. He was CEO of two Detroit area hospitals over a career lasting 32 years. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1997.
 

Historic Firsts

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PRESIDENT OF A MAJOR U.S. UNIVERSITY

In January 1970, Clifton R. Wharton began his eight-year presidency at Michigan State University. Appointed at a time of great social change in the United States and on campus, Wharton was committed to the education of the economically—and educationally— disadvantaged.

Major contributions during his tenure included establishment of the Presidential Commission on Admissions and Student Body Composition, the Presidential Fellows program, and the development of a performing arts center, later named the Wharton Center for Performing Arts in honor of Wharton and his wife, Dolores.
 

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN MSU BOARD OF TRUSTEES MEMBER

Blanche Martin, class of 1959, took the oath of office as the first African American member of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees on January 6, 1969. Martin served two consecutive terms on the board. A former football star at Michigan State, he was named an Academic All-American (1957-1958) and was awarded the Ross Trophy for outstanding academic and athletic achievements (1959). He earned his D.D.S. from the University of Detroit in 1967 and established his dental practice in East Lansing.
 

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN FACULTY

David W. Dickson was appointed to the English department faculty in 1948, and his course on the Bible as Literature is remembered as one of the most popular offered by that department. Dickson taught at Michigan State until resigning in 1963 to take a position at Federal College in Washington, D.C. He later became president of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

William Harrison Pipes joined the Michigan State faculty in 1957, teaching speech and literature. The first African American in the United States to earn a PhD in speech and the first to be granted full professorship at MSU, Pipes’ academic career included serving as president of Alcorn State University and academic dean of Philander Smith College. He remained at MSU until his retirement in 1975.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN FRATERNITY/SORORITY

Alpha Phi Alpha was the first social fraternity to be established by Black students at Michigan State. Organized in May 1948, the fraternity was dedicated to providing service to mankind and the advancement of interracial groups at Michigan State.

Founded on February 3, 1954, MSU’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha became the first Black sorority on campus, with 17 charter members. Its initial service projects included reading to the blind, giving guided tours of the campus, and visiting a veterans’ hospital.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN MISS MSU

In 1967, Patty Burnette, a social science junior, was crowned Miss MSU. This honor included representing Michigan State University in the Miss Michigan Pageant.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN CHEERLEADER

Don Vest, class of 1952, was the first African American cheerleader at Michigan State. A business and public service major, Vest was also a member of the varsity gymnastics team and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

Written by Dorothy Frye. A previous version was posted to the MSU Archives website in 1997. Additional material was written by Eve Avdoulos and posted to the MSU Archives blog in February 2012.

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections

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