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5 pioneering Black civil engineers who paved the way for future generations

27 October 2021

These trailblazers inspired those around them and made significant contributions to the profession and society.

5 pioneering Black civil engineers who paved the way for future generations
Image credit: Shutterstock

As our #BlackHistoryMonth celebrations draw to a close, ICE looks at five Black engineers whose breakthroughs helped change the course of history.

1. The first African American woman to join the US Army Corps of Engineers

Hattie T. Scott Peterson, 1913-1993

Hattie Peterson was the first Black female engineer to gain a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering and made waves when she became the first African American woman to join the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 1954.

In addition to being a trailblazer in the industry, she also ensured her legacy lived on. Following her death in 1993, Peterson left an endowment for scholarships at Howard University, helping future generations of Black civil engineers to reach their full potential.

In celebration of Peterson’s life, the Sacramento district of the USACE inaugurated the Hattie Peterson Inspiration Award, which is rewarded every year to employees who exemplify Peterson’s dedication to integrity and professional qualities in the face of social challenges.

2. The first African American student to graduate from The University of California, Berkeley

Howard P Grant, 1925-1997

Howard P Grant was the first African American student to graduate from the University of California, Berkley, achieving his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering in 1948. That same year, Grant became the first Black member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

As the first Black civil engineer for the City and County of San Francisco, and only the second African American civil engineer licensed by the State of California, the influence Grant had on the industry cannot be overstated.

Beyond his professional accomplishments as an engineer, Grant’s position also saw him viewed as an ‘inspiration and mentor’ to Black and Minority Ethnic individuals throughout the county. In 1970, a close friend of Grant’s, Frederick E. Jordan, asked him to host the first meeting of Northern California’s Black engineers at Grant’s home.

This meeting ultimately grew into the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers (NCCBPE). To this day, they continue to promote the professional development of Black engineers whilst providing thought-leadership in the world of science and engineering.

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3. Inventor of life-saving train signalling system

William Hunter Dammond, 1873- 1956

Have you ever been sat on a train and wondered just how trains have come to be one of the safest forms of transportation possible? As the first Black graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, William Dammond was a civil engineer and the inventor of a pioneering train signalling system that drastically enhanced rail safety.

Dammond’s fascination with engineering went beyond finding solutions to society’s problems – he also wanted to make society a safer place. In 1903, he received a patent for a ‘Signalling System’, an alternating-track, circuit-based technology designed to replace human hand signals used to direct trains. This innovation reduced the prevalence of human error – and, therefore, the prevalence of rail-related tragedies.

By 1906, he patented a ‘Clear, Caution, Danger’ mechanism. Always one to take a hands-on approach, Dammond, now based in London, worked alongside his team to construct equipment that could test his innovations on engines over one thousand times.

His fascination with rail safety did not end with the inception of his inventions. He published pieces on train crashes and rail safety throughout much of his career, resulting in him being celebrated as both a leader and a pioneer in the field of locomotive safety.

4. Co-founder and first President of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc – the first African American fraternity.

George Biddle Kelley, 1884-1962

George Kelley graduated from Cornell University’s College of Civil Engineering in 1908 before becoming the first African American engineer to register with the State of New York. Whilst at Cornell, Kelley became co-founder and later the first President of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc, the first African American fraternity, and was the most prominent and influential voice within the fraternity at the time.

By the 1920s, Kelley was employed by the New York Engineering Department, where he worked on the New York State Canal System (formerly known as the New York State Barge Canal.) The individual canals were originally known as the Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, Cayuga–Seneca Canal, and Champlain Canal. In 2016, it was selected as a National Historic Landmark.

Kelley’s legacy lives on today through the George Biddle Kelley Education Foundation, an initiative that provides information, scholarships and advocacy for the most at-risk families and underprivileged communities.

5. Founder of engineering firm, A.A. Alexander Inc. aged 26.

Archie Alexander, 1888-1958

Archie Alexander was passionate about his vocation, but racial prejudice made it almost impossible for him to find work as a professional engineer. Set on his ambition, he took up a post as a foreman for the Marsh Engineering Company. But determined to pave his own way, his entrepreneurial spirit resulted in him founding his own engineering company, A.A. Alexander Inc., at just 26.

Alexander grew up in poverty in Ottumwa, Iowa, and his journey to becoming a civil engineer was not a straightforward one. After enrolling at the University of Iowa to study engineering, he stood out as the only Black student attending. He went on to become the first African American student to graduate from the university’s engineering programme in 1912.

Alexander had many triumphs throughout his career, but highlights included his work on the construction of a bridge and seawall at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC and his firm’s work on the apartment building for the National Association for Coloured Women.

Given Alexander’s tremendous success and determination, it’s no wonder that he was later awarded an honorary master’s degree from the University of Iowa and an honorary Doctor of Engineering from Howard University. Though his accolades are to be celebrated, it’s his grit and refusal to surrender his passion in the face of society’s prejudice that makes him one of our engineering heroes.

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Do you know of an inspiring historical Black engineer whose story you would like us to uncover? Join in the conversation by commenting on our Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn channels.

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE