HBCUs are known for producing some of the nation's best STEM graduates, with numerous institutions recognized for their prestigious programs. Spelman College, Xavier University of Louisiana, Prairie View A&M University, and NC A&T State University are just a few of the many schools perfect for those interested in pursuing a STEM degree. Historically, there have been hundreds of significant HBCU STEM graduates that have impacted the trajectory of the United States. Without grads like West Virginia State University's Katherine Johnson, who helped send the first American into space, we would not be where we are today. We'll highlight 10 crucial HBCU STEM graduates that, if you aren't familiar with, you should know about.
Katherine Johnson (West Virginia State University)
With a history of extraordinary mathematical skills when growing up, Johnson attended West Virginia State University and graduated in Mathematics and French in 1937. Katherine began her work in 1953 in early space research as one of NASA's human computers, working in a team to calculate astronaut Alan Shepard's trajectory into space. She is best known for playing an enormous part in the success of John Glenn's Friendship 7 mission. Without her meticulous calculations, the Apollo Moon landing program may not have been a reality. She has recently been portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures. In 2018, WVSU established the Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson Scholarship and unveiled a bronze statue in her honor.
Dorothy J. Vaughan (Wilberforce University)
Dorothy Vaughan was a pivotal NASA mathematician who served as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA's) segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958. After graduating in Mathematics from Wilberforce University in 1929, she took up a teaching position at Robert Russa Moton High School. She left for the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943 and was assigned to the segregated "West Area Computing" unit. Six years later, Vaughan was promoted as the head of the all-black unit. The unit became distinguished, and engineers would often come to Vaughan for the best human computers for a project. She spent her career as an advocate for the women of her unit until the racial and gender integration Analysis and Computation Division was formed. She is also portrayed in Hidden Figures by Octavia Spencer.
Mary Jackson (Hampton Institute [now University])
Not only was Mary Jackson's NASA first African-American female engineer, but also one of only a small number of female engineers. Having graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in Mathematics and Physical Science, it would be almost 10 years later and an assortment of different jobs before she began at the NASA Langley Research Center. Jackson worked under Dorothy Vaughan for two years as a human computer. She then received an offer to work on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel with Kazimierz Czarnecki. In order to leap from mathematician to engineer, Jackson had to enroll in an all-white graduate math and physics courses (which she needed special permission to take). In 1958, she earned the title of NASA's first black female engineer. Actress and singer Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures.
Kenneth and Mamie Clark (Howard University)
This HBCU STEM grad duo were social psychologists who focused on the self-consciousness in black preschool children. Mamie met Kenneth while attending Howard and the two eloped during her senior year in 1937. Working together with Kenneth, they continued their work with Clark's doll study, an experiment inspired by Ruth and Gene Horowitz's work on "self-identification" in nursery school children. Black children from ages 3 to 7 were asked questions regarding four dolls, which were identical except in color. The resulted indicated that segregation and prejudice caused black children to develop senses of self-hatred and inferiority. Mamie Clark also founded the Northside Center for Child Development to provide therapy for Harlem children. Kenneth Clark established a psychology department at Hampton and was the first African American president of the American Psychological Association.
Dorothy Lavinia Brown (Bennett College)
Dorothy Lavinia Brown was a pioneer in surgery and served as a legislator and teacher. Born in Philadelphia, Brown was placed in an orphanage in upstate New York. She remained there until her thirteenth birthday. After bouts of running away, Brown finally escaped to enroll in Troy High School. The principal there arranged a foster home for her, which gave her the solid foundation she needed. With the help of the Troy Methodist Church, she was able to attend and graduate from Bennett College in 1941. She went on to graduate from Meharry Medical College in Nashville Tennessee in 1948. After a rigorous five-year surgery residency at Meharry and George W. Hubbard under Dr. Matthew Walker, Brown solidified her career as the first black female surgeon in the South. She was also recognized as the first African American woman to be made a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Amidst even more successes in her later life, Brown received the humanitarian award from the Carnegie Foundation in 1993.
Lonnie G. Johnson (Tuskegee University)
Engineer and inventor Lonnie G. Johnson has worked for the Air Force and NASA, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program and worked as a systems engineer for the Galileo and Cassini missions. Despite his career, Johnson often invented in his spare time. He developed what he may be more popularly known for as one of the greatest children's invention—the Super Soaker. The toy topped $200 million in 1991, allowing Johnson to found Johnson Research & Development. He also worked to develop the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC), which would use an advanced heat engine that could convert solar energy into electricity efficiently. This is an ongoing project, which would change the course of history if successful.
Angella D. Ferguson (Howard University)
Angella D. Ferguson propelled sickle-cell disease as a doctor and researcher in D.C. Ferguson attended Howard University and graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry in 1945. Four years later, she received her M.D. from Howard University College of Medicine and completed her residency at Washington Freedman's Hospital, developing her focus in pediatrics. In her research, Ferguson found that black children had a higher prevalence of sickle cell disease among the infants she saw in her practice. She thus began tracking the disease in African American infants and, through her persistence, determined methods for these infants that would help offset the disease. Her blood test for detection of sickle cell became a medical standard in 44 states by 2010.
Samuel P. Massie Jr. (Fisk University)
Samuel Massie Jr. was a chemist who was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Amidst racial barriers, Massie graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1937 and earned his master's degree from Fisk University in 1940. Working alongside Dr. Henry Gilman, he worked at Ames Laboratory from 1943 to 1945 on the Manhattan Project. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, taking the position as chair of the Chemistry Department at Langston University. Over the next few years, he'd work with Fisk University, the National Science Foundation, and even become President of the HBCU North Carolina College (now NCCU). President Lyndon Johnson appointed Massie as the first African American professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. After his retirement from the Naval Academy in 1993, he was named one of only three African Americans in the 75 most distinguished chemists of the 20th century.
Patricia Bath (Howard University)
Patricia Bath was a natural learner growing up, working so hard that she graduated high school in just two years. In 1968, Bath graduated from Howard University with an M.D. After interning at Harlem Hospital, she took up a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Her research led her to discover that African Americans were more apt to suffer from glaucoma and blindness. Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, and two years later, became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. One of her greatest successes and wins in medicine is the Laserphaco Probe. This device allows cataracts to be treated with less pain and more precision, helping to restore the vision of countless patients. The patent she obtained for the probe made her the first black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. In 1993, Bath retired and was named a "Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine.