Breaking Barriers: First African American Students at Michigan State

28 02 2012

As Black History Month is coming to a close, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of the first African American students at MSU that broke barriers changing the way the University and its students perceived the presence of African American students on campus. The following three individuals were among the first black students to be a part of the Michigan State community.

Myrtle Craig arrived at MAC after graduating from a small school in Missouri. Craig was not only a woman enrolling at MAC, but was the first African American student to attend the university. She faced many obstacles during her time here.  Not only was the Women’s Building too expensive for her, but she was not allowed to live there because of her race. When she first began at MAC, she lived with Addison Brown, the secretary to the State Board of Agriculture and cooked as a way to pay off her rent. She then moved in with Chance Newman, an Assistant Professor of Drawing and worked as a sales clerk, in a clothing store, and as a waitress to make ends meet. On May 31, 1907 she graduated and received her diploma from United States President Theodore Roosevelt. For the next forty years she devoted her life to teaching African American students.

Gideon E. Smith was also a very influential figure in the history of Black individuals at Michigan State. Starring at left tackle for the Aggies during the 1913, 1914, and 1915 seasons, Smith was the first African American to play football at MAC. He was one of the most influential players on the team and contributed a lot towards winning seasons of football. However, like all other AFrican American students before 1930, Smith’s name and picture were not included in the men’s societies’ pages in the yearbook. Despite his involvement in sports and other societies on campus, there was no visual record of Smith due to the way that African American’s were perceived in society. Despite his struggles to gain credibility among the college community, Smith graduated with a BS in Agriculture in 1916. He went on to become one of the first professional football players and he served in the military during World War I. He then dedicated the rest of his life to teaching and coaching African American youth.

Everett C. Yates, the first colored individual to play in the college cadet band and orchestra, also paved the way for future Black students here at Michigan State. Yates was a percussionist in both of these organizations that provided music for the parades and dances at that took place on campus.  He graduated with fellow classmate Gideon Smith in 1916 receiving a BS in Horticulture. Even though the two men graduated together, it was not until recently that Yates’ legacy was recognized; there were no images or documents acknowledging Yates as being the first African American in these bands. After graduating from MAC, Yates went on to become a very successful teacher, teaching music in schools around the country.

These three individuals, Myrtle Craig, Gideon Smith, and Everett Yates, were some of the first African American students to break color barriers on campus. Through their persistence in their respective and highly visible activities, they paved the way for future Black students at Michigan State.

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