2/26/19 Honoring First Black Graduate, Dr. Mamon Powers Jr.

Mamon Powers Jr., BSCE '70, talks to an overflowing crowd in the basement lecture hall of the Materials Science and Electrical Engineering building about the various struggles many black graduates experience along their journeys. 

On Tuesday, a Purdue alumnus and former University trustee gave a keynote address on his childhood, college and career experiences as an African-American man. He also spoke about the progress Purdue has made in recent decades in creating a more hospitable campus for all minorities.

Mamon Powers Jr., who earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1970 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014, was invited to present his lecture as part of a celebration honoring Purdue’s first African-American graduate, David Robert Lewis (B.S. Civil Engineering 1894). During his presentation, he spoke about the experiences that inspired him to pursue a degree in engineering as well as the challenges he faced as a black man throughout his career.

Powers, who now serves as the president of Powers and Sons Construction, said that his interest in engineering started as a middle schooler. As he grew older and learned about the acute underrepresentation of African-Americans in the field, his resolve to become an engineer solidified.

According to Powers, he and his black peers at Purdue often felt isolated and ignored. The lack of African-American students on campus was a contrast to his experiences growing up, where he was surrounded by others who mirrored his racial and socioeconomic background. There were also incidents that made him fear for his own safety. The 1968 murder of a young black woman in Martinsville, Indiana, by two white men, one of whom according to his own daughter had a “pronounced dislike for black people,” was one such incident.

Despite the unease he often felt, Powers considered himself fortunate not to have to face many of the struggles that the black men and women before him did. He described the college experiences of Purdue alumnus Richard Johnson, an acquaintance of his father whom he met prior to his own enrollment. According to Powers, Johnson was required to be off campus and across the Wabash River in Lafayette before sundown every day due to laws that banned the presence of minorities in certain public spaces after dark.

“I remember thinking how cruel that was,” Powers said. “How could you possibly succeed when you have so little access to university resources?”

It took Johnson nine years to graduate with his bachelor’s degree. Despite the conditions under which he was forced to study, he eventually went on to found his own engineering firm in Chicago. Johnson’s uphill battle to corporate success played a key role in inspiring Powers to fight through the challenges he encountered in his own career.

Powers also touched on the deep-reaching effects of racial discrimination in the workplace. He believes that the high rate of incarceration of black men is a direct consequence of the difficulty they have historically faced in gaining employment.

According to a 2017 meta-study by researchers from Northwestern University, Harvard University and the Institute of Social Research in Oslo, Norway, rates of racial discrimination within hiring have shown little to no decline in the past 25 years. The meta-analysis found that an applicant’s race still has a significant effect on their job prospects: whites on average receive approximately 36 percent more callbacks than blacks do from prospective employers, and this statistic does not change significantly when factors like applicant education level and labor market conditions are accounted for.

Following the keynote address, Mung Chiang, the Dean of the College of Engineering, rededicated the key of the National Society of Black Engineers. NSBE President and senior Robbie Williams spoke about the impact the organization has had in supporting engineering students from all minority backgrounds.

“NSBE helps all of its members academically, professionally and socially,” Williams said. “We do everything from resume reviews to tutoring and providing mentorships ... we’ve really built up a family structure.”

According to Williams, organizations like NSBE play a crucial role in providing support and mentorship to students who are a part of historically underrepresented groups in fields like engineering. As one of only three undergraduate black women in the School of Mechanical Engineering, Williams is aware of the impact a relatable mentor or role model can have.

“When you’re coming into engineering (as an African-American), you’re coming into an environment where not a lot of people look like you,” she said. “You really try not to fulfill stereotypes that people already have about you. I was lucky that there was another black woman older than me who was a mentor to me ... but not everyone has that.”

African-American studies professor Ronald Stephens said that while college campuses have made some progress in pushing for more diversity within their student body, there is still a level of unspoken resistance against changing the status quo.

“There’s always a lot of talk (about diversity) — but talk is talk, and action speaks louder,” Stephens said. “That’s the rhetoric and not always the practice.”

Stephens’s perspective is supported by statistics: The National Science Foundation reported that in 2012, African-American men were awarded 6.2 percent of all science and engineering degrees, a mere 0.1 percent increase since 2002. In addition, a 2018 joint study conducted by NSBE and the Society of Women Engineers revealed that less than 4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering are earned by African-American, Hispanic and Native American women combined.

According to Stephens, much of the resistance toward diversification he has seen within the student body stems from the discomfort most people experience when interacting with those from unfamiliar backgrounds. Because many students at Purdue come from racially and socioeconomically homogeneous communities, they have difficulty relating to and empathizing with those from different cultures — an issue he sees affecting minority and majority students alike.

However, he credits campus organizations like the Black Cultural Center for playing an influential role in supporting minorities and promoting cultural competency among students of all backgrounds.

“Evidence shows ... that what helps with increasing the enrollment (of African-American students) on college campuses is providing resources and places where they feel more comfortable, especially at a predominantly white institution like Purdue,” he said.

As part of the closing comments of his keynote address, Powers also called for action, encouraging attendees to keep pushing for a more welcoming and inclusive campus. He urged minority students to not take their rights for granted, warning that rights given can always be taken away.

“As inclusive as we may be or feel we are, there is much more work to be done,” Powers said. “We say that we are one of the smartest universities in the world, so let’s prove it and solve this diversity issue.”

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