Excerpts of Black History at Purdue University: Part 2, PURDUE AT 150

To commemorate Black History Month, Purdue University Press is featuring excerpts of notable moments in black history at Purdue. 

In this post we’re featuring a few excerpts and pictures from Purdue at 150: A Visual History of Student Life by David M. Hovde, Adriana Harmeyer, Neal Harmeyer and Sammie L. Morris.

A Peaceful Demonstration and a Nine-Point Petition

On an overcast morning in May 1968, 129 students from the Black Student Union assembled at the steps of the Administration Building, nonviolently protesting discrimination on campus by symbolically placing bricks on the steps of Hovde Hall. The students delivered a petition to the University listing specific demands for change. It stated:

  • We demand that the University pressure its departments to recruit qualified black professors
    for the 1968–1969 school year.
  • We demand that the professors of the History Department integrate their segregated, bigoted,
    and insulting U.S. history courses.
  • We demand the immediate integration of student organizations.
  • We demand courses dealing with black culture.
  • We demand that the black arts be incorporated into the music and art appreciation courses.
  • We demand that the University compile a list of discriminatory housing and make this list public.
  • We demand more than a token integration of the administration.
  • We demand that the University see to it that black professors do not meet discrimination in
    procuring housing.
  • We demand that a course dealing with distortion be instituted as a general core requirement for
    all students.

“The day of the march we had already been told that we needed to get a brown paper bag and find a red brick. . . . (Purdue had red brick buildings everywhere). So, we each got our brick, put it in our little paper bag. . . . We assembled in Stewart Center, and we got in a single line, with our bricks in our paper bags, and one by one we marched to Hovde Hall. . . . Single file. Quietly. . . . We took our red bricks out of our brown paper bags and one by one we walked up the steps, and put a brick on the steps.”

— Marion Blalock, BS 1969, director of the Minority Engineering Program, 1973–2008


Making Progress in the 1970s

After decades of fighting for rights and representation, African American students began gaining new opportunities in academic and cultural programs. The Black Cultural Center (BCC), dedicated in the fall of 1970, offered a location for both learning and community building. Professor Singer Buchanan was hired as Purdue’s first coordinator of Black Student Programs in 1970. He articulated a vision for the BCC as an educational and social center, a place for people of different races and backgrounds to discuss issues, exchange feelings, and “emerge hopefully on the other side with a greater understanding of what each thinks, and feels, and believes. Graduate student John Houston became the first director of the BCC in 1972. He was succeeded by Antonio Zamora in 1973.

The Interdisciplinary Afro-American Studies Program at Purdue was approved in 1970. The option for students to major or minor in African American studies became available in the fall of 1971. The College of Engineering’s Minority Engineering Program was established in 1974, with alumna Marion Blalock serving as its inaugural director. The BCC brought Muhammad Ali to campus in 1976, sponsoring a lecture he gave on the topic of friendship.

Two undergraduate students, Edward Barnette and Fred Cooper, established the Black Society of Engineers (BSE) in 1971 as a means of improving black engineering student retention and recruitment. Barnette served as the first president of the new student organization. The society’s president, Anthony Harris, contacted students at universities across the country and, on April 10–12, 1975, hosted the first meeting of what would become known as the National Society of Black Engineers.

By the 1970s, students were increasingly taking advantage of the press to make their voices heard. The Black Hurricane newspaper, a publication of the Black Student Union, published its first issue in 1970. It advocated for total freedom for African American people, with a sphere “like a hurricane” that “knows no boundaries to its destination.” Several other independent student newspapers, such as Red Brick, made their debuts during the decade.


Kassandra Agee Chandler, Purdue’s First African American Homecoming Queen

As a sophomore in the fall of 1978, Kassandra Agee Chandler was elected Purdue’s Homecoming queen, the first African American Homecoming queen in Purdue’s history. A representative of Meredith Residence Halls, she competed against twenty-three other competitors to win her title. When reflecting upon the nomination and campaign experience, she remembered hearing, “They’ll never let you win this.” But Agee Chandler drew upon the strength of her family, friends, and dorm mates, as well as her own tenacity. She worked tirelessly on her campaign, going door-to-door and hanging posters. She remembered, “I didn’t let it get to me. I never let anyone talk me down. . . . In the end, I was able to make my family and sisterhood proud.”

President Arthur Hansen presenting flowers to 1978 Homecoming queen Kassandra Agee. (Purdue University Marketing and Media collection)

In addition to her roles as Homecoming queen and leader for African American students on campus, Agee Chandler was active in extracurricular activities. She was a member of Alpha Lambda Delta freshman honor society, Purdue Pals, and the Black Voices of Inspiration Choir. Agee Chandler was also a president and founding member of Purdue’s Society of Minority Managers. In addition, she served as a social counselor for the Business Opportunity Program in the School of Management and was a member of the Mortar Board senior honor society. Her involvement reflected her role as a leader on campus as well as her excellent academic record.


Purdue’s first African American Graduates

In 1890 George W. Lacy, or Lacey, completed a degree in pharmacy, becoming the first African American graduate of Purdue. At the time, Pharmacy was an academic organization separate from the university, and as a result, Lacy’s success is sometimes overlooked. In 1894 David Robert Lewis of Greensburg, Indiana, completed his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, becoming the first African American graduate of a traditional four-year program at Purdue.

Purdue at 150 is available for 30% off on the Purdue University Press website when you use the code PURDUE30.