Charles W. Pierce – First-Known African-American Chemical Engineer in the U.S.Additional Links:
- IIT Archives Collection
- 2007 Peck Lecture & Distinguished Alumni Awards
- Charles Pierce Story in the Chicago Tribune - October 5, 2007
- Photo Gallery
Celebrating the Legacy of Charles Pierce
The year was 1901 – a time when races were segregated, African-Americans were not treated as equals and the world was a decidedly different place than the one we live in today. It was an era in which futures were predetermined by skin color, and dreams of breaking out of social classes were nothing more than seemingly foolish thoughts.
But, one man, a silent face in our nation’s history, did dream. He dared to break out of the limitations of his heritage to earn the remarkable distinction as the first-known African-American chemical engineer. Until recently, Charles Warner Pierce, the first graduate of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the then-Armour Institute of Technology, was revered as a pioneer in his profession only by his descendants, while his student records and tales of his accomplishments remained buried within the IIT Archives. More than 106 years after his 1901 graduation, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (ChBE) is proud to share this extraordinary piece of our nation’s history by presenting Pierce with the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award for his monumental role as the first-known black chemical engineer in the United States.
It is nearly impossible to imagine the life Pierce lived and the challenges he faced in his pursuits as an engineer in a time when African-Americans were not welcomed in the professional world. But Pierce had a dream, and he followed it, regardless of the obstacles he must have known he would encounter. In 1893, Pierce, along with his twin brother, Cornelius, left his hometown of Austin, Texas in search of a better life and more educational opportunities.
The brothers eventually found themselves in Chicago, an emerging town making a name for itself as one of the fastest growing cities in the world. At the time, many African-Americans were moving north in the hopes of finding greater freedom, opportunity and employment. In 1896, Pierce applied to Armour Institute of Technology, a college committed to providing educational opportunities regardless of students’ economic status, religious affiliation or race. On his application, Pierce demonstrated proficiency in algebra, geometry, physics, German, English, Latin and history. Since he did not graduate from his Austin high school, he was first admitted to Armour Scientific Academy, a preparatory school, to complete the academic background he needed before entering the technical college program. Upon graduation in 1897, Pierce was accepted as a new student at Armour Institute and started classes in September of that year.
Throughout the program, Pierce took classes in calculus, carpentry, wood turning, pattern making, forging, mechanical drawing, kinematical drawing, mechanics and physical measurements, theoretical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, boilers, hydraulics and quantitative analysis. On June 19, 1901, he became the first chemical engineering graduate of Armour Institute of Technology.
All available records indicate that Pierce was a very involved and well-liked student. He was a member of the Glee Club, the orchestra and the Technical Society while a student at Armour Institute. Although he appeared to be an accepted member of the Armour Institute family, his struggles as an African-American in the pre-civil rights era were apparent in quotes included in the school’s yearbook. In these quotes, Pierce stated, “Mislike me not for my complexion,” and “Born but to blush unseen,” obvious windows into the adversity he must have felt.
Pierce, undoubtedly committed to higher education, began his career as a teacher at Tuskegee Normal College, now known as Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama. While at Tuskegee Normal College, Pierce worked alongside Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, two
African-American pioneers in their own right. In 1904, he wrote an article for The Colored American Magazine about how electricity was taught to students at Tuskegee. This article was later included in the book, A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience (2005), edited by Carroll Pursell.
He left his position at Normal College in 1907 and moved to Greensboro, N.C., where he taught at the State Agricultural and Mechanical College, the present-day North Carolina A&T, eventually heading the mechanical engineering department. Records indicate that Pierce returned to Armour Institute in 1908 for a summer session course on machine tool work while he was still residing in North Carolina.
Soon Chicago beckoned to Pierce once again. The city was becoming widely known for a growing number of prominent African-American businesses and social justice movements. He continued his career working as an electrical contractor, except for a year he spent overseas with the Old English Infantry Regiment, a United States National Guard unit that drew members from the black community. He remained an active member of the African-American technical community throughout his career, including membership in the National Technical Association, a Chicago-based group representing minorities in engineering and technology. It is believed Pierce may have served as the group’s secretary at one point in time. He also was a member of Phi Beta Sigma, a national African-American fraternity.
In 1921, his love for teaching prompted Pierce to become a physics teacher at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School. Later, in 1935, he moved to the newly completed DuSable High School and taught science and physics until his retirement in 1941. All accounts indicate that he was an outstanding teacher and well-liked by his students. In an excerpt included in Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration (2003), by Timuel D. Black, Jr., a former student reminisces that Pierce was a very highly respected teacher throughout his career.
Pierce passed away at the age of 71 in 1947 of heart disease, and his role as the nation’s first black chemical engineer faded into history unknown to the rest of the world.
In preparation for the chemical engineering department’s centennial anniversary in 2001, the legacy of Pierce was once again discovered as faculty and staff members searched for the department’s first graduate. Upon finding Pierce’s student records, those involved in the project began to ponder if it was possible that the first graduate of the chemical engineering program was in fact the first African-American chemical engineer in the United States.
Finding Pierce’s century-old records was an accomplishment in itself, but validating the claim was another challenge the department and Armour College of Engineering were about to undertake. In 1901, eight chemical engineering programs existed in the United States – those at Armour Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, the University of Michigan, Tufts University, the University of Illinois and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Having already established that Pierce graduated from Armour Institute in 1901, the department set out to verify if any of the seven other universities had graduated a black chemical engineer prior to this year. This task proved to be easier said than done. Record-keeping at the turn of the century was not as thorough as it is today, and few institutions maintained documentation of their students’ ethnicities. ChBE and Armour College workedwith department historians and university archivists for years in attempt to verify Pierce’s role as the first black chemical engineer. In the summer of 2007, after no other records of a black student graduating with a chemical engineering degree prior to 1901 were uncovered, ChBE and the Armour College were prepared to make the claim that Pierce was the nation’s first-known African-American chemical engineer.
During this process, the department and Armour College also traced Pierce’s ancestry through the help of Patricia Liddell Researchers, a historical group focusing on African-American genealogy. Pierce and his wife, Mollie Parks, had one daughter, Mary, who did not give birth to any offspring. It was through Pierce’s twin brother Cornelius that the Armour College and ChBE were able to uncover descendants to help establish this claim. Cornelius and his wife, Myrtle Douglas, had three daughters. Their children, Pierce’s great nephew and niece, the Reverend Leon and Annice Scott, gave the Armour College and ChBE the missing pieces needed to honor him as the first black chemical engineer in the United States.
With the claim validated and Pierce’s family known, ChBE is proud to give Pierce a deserved place in IIT and the nation’s history. In October 2007, during the annual Peck Lecture, the department will present the Distinguished Alumni Award to Pierce’s descendants
in recognition and appreciation of his role as the first black chemical engineer in the United States.
Pierce could not be a more fitting alumnus to honor during this annual event. He was a pioneer not only in the history of the chemical engineering profession, but also black history in the United States.
Charles Pierce had a dream at a time when dreaming was nearly impossible. He faced unimaginable challenges in pursuing his goals, yet he achieved them when so many simply gave up. Pierce is a timeless American hero – one who undeniably served as a role model in his own time and one who will undoubtedly continue to inspire future generations.
Twins Charles and Cornelius were born on May 20, 1876, to Henry and Laura Pierce in LaGrange, Ga. Shortly after the twins’ birth, the parents and their 14 children moved to Austin, Texas. Charles and Cornelius lived there with their family until the age of 17 when they decided to travel together to Chicago in pursuit of more education and employment opportunities.
While Charles attended Armour Institute of Technology, Cornelius attended the Chicago Art Institute. Following their graduation, the brothers both accepted positions at Tuskegee Normal College in Tuskegee, Ala. Cornelius later returned to Chicago and worked as a clerk in the Chicago Post Office until his retirement in 1941. Throughout his life, he gave private voice lessons, acted as a choir director for a number of parishes and served as the director of the Armour Jubilee Singers. He passed away in 1963 and was survived by his wife Myrtle and three daughters.
It is remarkable to think that in a time when many African-Americans were not provided any advancement opportunities, both twins were able to receive an education and move on to professional careers. Their pioneering and visionary actions will stand as all-time inspiration for generations of young men and women pursuing education as a means towards a better life.
The “Million Dollar Sermon”
Frank Gunsaulus, a Chicago pastor, envisioned an institute of higher learning that would provide opportunities to all who sought them, regardless of race, class and religion. A historical sermon delivered in Chicago was enough inspiration for industrialist Philip Armour to back Gunsaulus’ vision. With one million dollars in funding provided by Armour, the two men were able to fulfill this goal, giving hundreds of committed and diligent men and women the opportunity to receive an education. The shared dream of Gunsaulus and Armour was the very reason Charles Pierce had the opportunity to pursue his educational aspirations.
Just imagine how many people have been given the opportunity to pursue their dreams because of that fateful sermon. How many more Charles Pierces are out there, faceless names that have made a quiet impact on the world, all because of the educational opportunities given to them at Armour Institute? We thank each and every one of them for their remarkable contributions, known and unknown, and their unwavering commitment to pursuing their dreams. We look forward to welcoming thousands more of this same breed of dedicated students to the IIT alumni family.