Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Black Milestones in Higher Education: Champaign-Urbana Edition

July 12th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Fighting Illini

History and Overview: The University of Illinois, Champaign – Urbana first opened its doors to students in 1868 as the Illinois Industrial University. Renamed the University of Illinois in 1885, U of I is one of the 37 original land grant universities established by President Abraham Lincoln.

African Americans first entered the U of I campus as employees. Existing records show that the first Black worker at the University  was Mr. L.H. Walden, who was first employed as a maintenance worker for the Military Drill Hall and Men’s Gymnasium (now Kenney Gym) in 1880.  The first African American student arrived on campus seven years later. Black students enrolled and graduated at a trickle throughout the first half of the 20th century.

In March of this year, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education issued the following assesment of the current Black student population at U of I:

Blacks make up 6.6 percent of the 31,000-member undergraduate student body at the University of Illinois. But the black student graduation rate of 65 percent is 21 percentage points below the rate for white students.

U of I is a member of the Big 10 athletic conference, and it’s sports teams play under the name “The Fighting Illini,” a name that the University has been allowed to retain, though it has been prohibited by the NCAA from using the image of its former mascot Chief Illiniwek, an imaginary native American figure whose appearance at intercollegiate athletic events was banned by that governing body.

Timeline: Black Milestones at the U of I, Champaign – Urbana

  • 1887     Jonathan A. Rogan becomes the first African American to enroll at the U of I. 
  • 1900     William Walter Smith becomes the first African American student to graduate from the U of I (bachelor’s in Literature and Arts). He would go on to earn two more degrees from Illinois, a second bachelor’s degree in 1907 (B.S. in Civil Engineering), and a master’s in Civil Engineering in 1913.
  • 1904     Walter T. Bailey becomes the first African American to student to graduate from the University of Illinois School of Architecture (B.S. in Architectural Engineering).
  • 1916     St. Elmo Brady becomes the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the U of I and in the U.S.
  • Maudelle Tanner Brown becomes the first African American woman to graduate from the U of I, taking only 3 years to earn a bachelor’s in Mathematics, with honors.
  • 1936     Beverly Greene becomes the first African American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in Architectural Engineering from the University of Illinois Schoool of Architecture. She would go on to receive a master’s degree in City Planning from the U of I.
  • 1969    Clarence A. Ellis completes the U of I doctoral program in Computer Science and becomes the first African American in the history of the U.S. to receive a Ph.D. in that field.
  • 1974     University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign establishes an African American Studies and Research Program.

William Walter Smith

William Walter Smith, the first African American

to graduate from the University of Illinois 

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African American, African American Students, Black History, Black PhDs, Higher Education, My Favorite Blogs, race, University of Illinois

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