Charles Pierce Recognized as First African-American Chemical Engineer in the United States

September 26, 2007 (PRLEAP.COM) Education News
Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) will recognize Charles Warner Pierce as the nation’s first-known African-American degree-holding chemical engineer at an October 5 ceremony. Having earned his degree from IIT in 1901, Pierce is also the first graduate of the university’s chemical engineering program.

IIT’s Chemical and Biological Engineering (ChBE) Department will present Pierce’s nephew, Rev. Leon Scott, the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award on behalf of his great uncle. Staff and faculty from ChBE, Armour College of Engineering and the IIT Archives spent more than six years researching the claim. This process included collaborating with Pierce’s descendants and contacting other universities across the country to verify whether another African-American had graduated from a chemical engineering program prior to 1901. After no other records were recovered, IIT determined that Pierce was the nation’s first African-American chemical engineering graduate.

“IIT is proud to honor Charles Pierce with his place in history as the nation’s first-known African-American chemical engineer and the first graduate in our chemical engineering program,” said John L. Anderson, president of IIT.

After earning his degree, Pierce moved to Alabama to teach at Tuskegee Normal College, now known as the Tuskegee University, where his colleagues included Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. In 1907, he continued his career at the State Agricultural and Mechanical College, the present-day North Carolina A&T State University, and headed the mechanical engineering department. He returned to Chicago and in 1921 began teaching physics at Wendell Phillips High School.

At Phillips, Pierce was known to be a highly respected teacher. In “Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration”, author and Chicago historian Timuel D. Black, Jr., recalls with a fellow Phillips’ alumnus that Mr. Pierce would not fix athletes’ low grades. “…when I got to Phillips, the coach would always advise you not to take Mr. Pierce’s classes if you were on the team because they wanted to be able to ‘fix’ your grade, and with Mr. Pierce that just wasn’t possible.”

Pierce transferred to DuSable High School, when it was completed in 1935, where he taught science and physics until his retirement in 1941. He passed away in 1947 at the age of 71.

Pierce’s legacy was discovered in 2001 when IIT’s chemical engineering department, in preparation for its 100th anniversary, searched university records to determine the department’s first graduate. Upon further investigation, it became apparent to researchers that Pierce could also be the first African-American to graduate from any chemical engineering program anywhere in the nation. Finding no other records of a black student graduating with a chemical engineering degree prior to 1901, IIT determined that Pierce was the nation’s first African-American chemical engineering graduate.

The award ceremony honoring Pierce will be part of the annual Ralph Peck Lecture Series. IIT President Anderson, who is a chemical engineer, will deliver this year’s lecture, titled, “Doing More with Less: Hydrogels as Selective Filters for the Transport of Proteins and Other Macromolecules.”

Anderson received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware and his master's and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. A Wilmington, Del., native, Anderson served as provost of Case Western Reserve University from 2004 until joining IIT in August 2007. Prior to Case, he served for 28 years at Carnegie Mellon University, including eight years as dean of the College of Engineering. He was a member of the Cornell University faculty before joining Carnegie Mellon. Anderson belongs to the National Academy of Engineering, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has held visiting professorships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Melbourne (Australia), and the Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen (The Netherlands). He has presented guest lectureships at universities throughout the United States, and is the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters.

Founded as Armour Institute of Technology in 1890 and later renamed upon merging with Lewis Institute, IIT is a Ph.D.-granting technological university awarding degrees in the sciences, mathematics and engineering, as well as architecture, psychology, design, business and law. IIT’s interprofessional, technology-focused curriculum prepares the university’s more than 7,300 students for leadership roles in an increasingly complex and culturally diverse global workplace. IIT students and faculty represent a wealth of intellectual capital for technology enterprise development.