Friday, April 7, 2023
Dedicated students, distinguished colleagues and dear friends,
Imagine for a moment the excitement of a highly accomplished 17-year-old high school graduate anxiously arriving on campus to start a rigorous program in engineering. Having heard all about the academic challenges ahead, along with life-enhancing opportunities that an S&T education offers, only to encounter a deeply segregated community withholding the most basic of services!
Last week, I had the great opportunity to meet with George E. Horne, our true pioneer of integration and one of the two first Black students to attend our university in 1950. The other, Elmer Bell Jr., passed away earlier. I visited Mr. Horne at his home in St. Louis to present him with the Chancellor Medal, our university’s highest honor, reserved for those who have contributed to the well-being, growth and development of S&T.
Born in 1932, George E. Horne and Elmer Bell Jr. grew up in the Ville section of St. Louis and attended segregated schools there. George was just 17 in 1949 when he took on the challenge of defeating segregation at S&T, then known as the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (MSM), and all public colleges and universities in Missouri. He was aided by a trio of attorneys from the NAACP.
Because the School of Mines and Metallurgy in Rolla did offer engineering degrees, the university would be denying the two students the “equal protection” of the law guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution if it refused to admit them. On June 27, 1950, Judge Sam C. Blair agreed, ruling that they must be admitted. The two young men arrived in Rolla on September 6 and registered for classes at S&T (MSM).
As highlighted in our Forged in Gold: Missouri S&T’s First 150 Years, when George and Elmer arrived in Rolla, they encountered a town that was deeply segregated. While they had no trouble with their professors, the bigotry they encountered in the community led them to transfer after their first semester.
“Horne and Bell arrived in Rolla in time for freshman orientation week and found accommodations in the campus’s first dormitory. When they tried to get a meal downtown, they encountered Rolla’s segregation practices. Not only were they not admitted into the restaurant, but also, they learned that the restaurant owner called Chancellor Curtis Laws Wilson to instruct him to keep the Black students away from his business.”
Despite these encounters, “Rolla was a good experience for me,” said Mr. Horne about his time on our campus. “Even though it wasn’t fruitful for me, it was fruitful for others who came after me.”
Indeed, George and Elmer paved the way for future Black students to enroll and become successful, including Lelia Thompson Flagg, who became the first Black student to graduate with an engineering degree from S&T a decade after George and Elmer arrived in Rolla – and was one of the few women to study engineering at our school at the time.
Mr. Horne, you will be proud to know that on your 91st birthday last week, our National Society of Black Engineers chapter was honored as the best chapter in the nation, a testament to your pioneering effort. You were the first, the vanguard, who inspired generations of Black students to dream and to make that dream become reality here on our campus. Thank you for your relentless and, in retrospect, emotional and indeed spiritual leadership in righting a long-standing wrong. I think I speak for the entire S&T community when I say thank you sir for paving the way and for making your courageous aspiration our inspiration. Please know that we all have collectively risen to new highs because of the gift of courage that you bestowed on our university long ago, when it was so desperately needed.
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