For many students, the wealth of ethnicities and cultures among students, faculty and staff becomes almost inconspicuous a few short weeks after a freshman takes his first step onto campus. However, Tech was not always the diverse community it is today.
Until the early 1960s, Tech, like many southern universities, was totally segregated. It was not until 1961 that the first African American students enrolled at Tech. This school year, the Institute celebrates the 50th anniversary of the matriculation of black students on campus.
Lawrence Williams, Ralph A. Long, Jr. and Ford C. Greene were the first black students to enroll at Tech. To honor these men and the path they put in place, Tech is hosting a series of events throughout the school year.
Even though the emotions surrounding the anniversary are ones of happiness and admiration, the road for the first three men—and for many minority students afterward—was long and trying.
“We are very proud of the fact that we integrated without violence, but we shouldn’t oversell that because I think those three guys were going through a very stressful period,” said Dr. Gary May, Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, ’85 EE alum.
When May was a freshman, he was one of about 700 African American students out of 11,000 total students.
“We [African American] students] had our particular share of struggles,” May said. “You would be in a big physics or chemistry classroom with 200 students, and there may [have been] a handful of students like you in terms of their background.”
Williams, Long and Greene endured many hardships. They did not have a place to eat lunch, fraternities to join or many social events.
“[African American students] were completely isolated,” May said.
In fact, the environment was so difficult that none of the first three men graduated from Tech.
Nevertheless, their legacy has influenced diversity at Tech today.
“[The first African American students] help[ed] break down barriers and make people understand that at our core we are all the same,” May said.
Since then, Tech has been a leader in accepting diverse populations of students, faculty and staff. Today, Tech ranks second in the country in awarding bachelor’s degrees in engineering to African Americans.
The environment at Tech today reflects the trail the men blazed.
“There wouldn’t have been the first African Americans on various athletic teams, professors, graduates and homecoming queens…All of those things wouldn’t have happened without somebody initiating the process, so we owe them a tremendous debt,” May said of the way Tech would have been without the first African American students.
“I think sometimes we also forget that there were [other] people at the beginning—not [just] these three. There have…been many—we call them ‘heroes’—who made things possible. [Others in the] student body, faculty and staff throughout the 50 years… may not get as large of a recognition because they weren’t necessarily the first, but there have been a lot of contributors to the success of Georgia Tech in [terms of] diversity,” May said.
A different picture of diversity exists in modern times, as this year’s freshman class is the most unique in school history. Minorities make up 40 percent of the freshmen population, whose members hail from 38 nations worldwide.
Tech also continues to be a leading university for minority engineers, ranking second in engineering bachelor’s degrees given to all minority students.
“Students today are [more sensitive] to the issues [than] we were because they may have had more experience in their own elementary and high schools with students of other races and nationalities, which in my generation we didn’t have,” May said.
The various events to be held in honor of Tech’s first African Americans will allow students to participate in forums.
In Spring 2011, exhibits at the Athletic and Alumni Associations will showcase major milestones in African American history. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other celebrities have also been invited to campus.
Despite the strides that the Institute has taken to promote diversity, May recognizes that there is still work to be done.
“Even today, I don’t think we’re quite there yet in terms of accepting each other. A lot of progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go.”