For the first 36 years of K-State’s history, the faculty and student bodies were comprised entirely of people of European-American descent. Then in 1899, George Washington Owens became the first African-American male to graduate from the university, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in “general course.” Two years later, Minnie Howell became the first African-American woman to graduate, earning a degree in domestic science in 1901.
These two pioneers paved the road for all other students of color to come through K-State, according to JohnElla Holmes, instructor of American ethnic studies.
“We all stand on someone else’s shoulders,” Holmes said. “Current African-American students are definitely standing on the shoulders of these two. People need to know where they come from in order to move forward and know where they are going.”
Owens and his family were slaves in the South who moved to Manhattan after they were freed. One of Owens’ teachers at Manhattan High School recommended that he attend K-State and receive a college education.
“There had been no other black graduates before Owens,” said Tony Crawford, curator of manuscripts at Hale Library. “There had been other black students at K-State at the same time as Owens, but none had graduated, or they were younger than Owens. Owens then became determined to be the first black graduate from K-State.”
Based on the records in Hale Library’s Special Collections, Owens appeared to be highly accepted at K-State. He was a part of a literary society on campus, and his picture and undergraduate senior thesis were both published in K-State’s paper. Upon graduation Owens was personally recruited by Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, who offered him a position under George Washington Carver, head of the agricultural department at Tuskegee.
After a successful time at Tuskegee, Owens was hired as head of the agricultural program at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as Virginia State University) in 1908. He retired in 1945 as the chairman of the Department of Agriculture, before passing away in 1950 at the age of 75.
“Manhattan was known to be an incredibly racist time while [Owens and Howell] were at K-State,” Holmes said. “I can’t even image how racist the climate was here at that time. It must have been absolutely horrible. Yet, they both persevered through all the racism at their home fronts, then had to come to K-State and endure even more racism. These two have no traces of any type of disciplinary actions or missing classes or ever being arrested, for either one of them. They must have put their noses down, did their work and graduated.”
Howell and her family moved to Manhattan in 1886. She graduated from high school in 1896 and entered K-State that same year. Howell was widely accepted at K-State as well, becoming a part of the Ionian Literary Society and developing a reputation as a skilled pianist.
“The way she carried herself is often how people remember her,” said Pat Patton, research specialist at the K-State university archives. “She had always carried herself with pride and dignity. She always showed her strength. Knowledge was also so important to her.”
After graduating in 1901, Howell always kept in contact with her class, making it a point to attend reunions and events.
Howell spent the next phase of her life traveling throughout the United States, attending the openings of African-American universities with her daughter, Frances, who was born on May 8, 1913. Howell’s husband E. J. Champe, whom she married on June 4, 1912, preferred staying behind in rural Kansas to traveling with his wife and daughter. Rather than explaining why her husband wasn’t with her, in a time when appearing to be a single mother carried a social stigma, Howell told people he was deceased.
“Champe was not much older than Howell, but when they married he was ready to settle down,” Patton said. “Howell wanted to use her degree to travel and educate others. She also made sure Frances had her college education. E.J. Champe would stay in a small town in Kansas, but [Howell] wanted to continue to educate others. The inner strength she had to have had to live apart from her husband is unimaginable. The love and respect he must have had for her to allow her to do this is insurmountable.”
Howell passed away in 1948.
Both Owens and Howell have been recognized with stones in front of the K-State Alumni Association, even though they passed away long before they would have been able to be at the dedication ceremony.
“Back when these two were at K-State, the question was ‘Are you going to college?’ Now, the question has become, ‘Where are you going?'” Holmes said. “I have a lot of respect for them and admire [their] perseverance through everything they had to endure.”