Nearly 40 years after the 13th Amendment passed, William O. Thompson (left), class of 1904, was the first known Black graduate from Michigan State, known then as Michigan Agricultural College, or M.A.C.
Myrtle Craig Mowbray (right) was the first female Black graduate of MSU, formerly M.A.C., in 1907. She received her diploma from President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the honored guest during the college’s Centennial Jubilee Celebration.
Gideon Smith, class of 1916, was one of two Black college football players in the country and the first Black college football player to turn pro.
William H. Smith, class of 1937, lettered in both football and track. Smith became a surveyor for the State Department of Transportation as one of the first African American field engineers in Michigan. (Image: 1934 football team. Smith is first on the left in the fifth row.)
Willie Thrower became the first African American quarterback to play for a Big Ten University in 1949, and the first to do so in the NFL in 1953. Image courtesy of msuspartans.com
Reginald “Rickey” Ayala, class of 1954, was one of the first African American varsity basketball players at Michigan State. After graduation, he played for the Harlem Globetrotters for two years. He later became CEO of two Detroit-area hospitals during a career lasting 32 years. Image credit: MSU Archives and msuspartans.com
Hometown hero Earvin “Magic” Johnson, class of 1979, led the men’s basketball team to its first NCAA championship in 1979. As an integral member of the team, Johnson earned numerous awards as a point guard, including two-time All-American, Big Ten MVP and MVP of the 1979 NCAA Tournament. He was inducted into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992.
Professionally, Johnson is known for five NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 for his individual contributions and again in 2010 as a member of the Dream Team. Since his retirement, Johnson has become an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention. Image credit: MSU Archives and Derrick L. Turner.
Clubs, organizations and teams
Everett C. Yates, class of 1916, was the first African American individual to play in the college cadet band and orchestra. (Image: Group picture of the Military Band, 1915. Yates is first on the left in the second row.)
In 1948, Alpha Phi Alpha was the first historically Black fraternity on Michigan State’s campus. The fraternity was dedicated to providing service and integrating various social groups on campus. Image credit: MSU Archives and G.L. Kohuth.
Don Vest, class of 1952, was the first African American cheerleader at Michigan State. A business and public service major, Vest was also a member of the varsity gymnastics team and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
Alpha Kappa Alpha was the first historically Black sorority to be established on MSU’s campus in 1954. Several members of the MSU chapter have gone on to serve in major leadership roles for the national organization.
The Black Student Alliance was established in September 1967 amid student protests surrounding racism on Michigan State’s campus. Robert L. Green, a faculty member who would later become the director of the Center for Urban Affairs at MSU and a college dean, helped students organize. The group met in Green’s basement to organize and plan as the central advocacy group for Black students. To this day, the BSA serves as the voice of Black students on campus.
The Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators Association, or BFSAA, was formed during the late 1960s during the height of campus activism. The association’s purpose is both to serve as a strong voice and advocate for justice on campus and in support of the recruitment and success of Black faculty, students, staff and administrators.
Clifton R. Wharton became the first African American president of a major U.S. university in 1970. Wharton served as MSU president for eight years. Among his various contributions to the university was the development of a performing arts center, later named the Wharton Center for Performing Arts in honor of Wharton and his wife, Dolores. He was also the first African American to become chairperson and CEO of a major U.S. corporation, TIAA-CREF. Wharton later served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State in 1993. Image credit: MSU Archives and Wharton Center.
Blanche Martin, class of 1959, took the oath of office as the first African American member of the MSU Board of Trustees on Jan. 6, 1969. Martin was named Academic All-American (1957-1958) and was awarded the Ross Trophy for outstanding academic and athletic achievements as a member of the Spartan football team. He later earned his Doctor of Dental Surgery from the University of Detroit and continues to practice dentistry more than 40 years later. (Right image: 1969 Board of Trustees. Martin is second from the left in the bottom row.)
In 1995, Merritt Norvell was appointed Michigan State’s 18th athletics director, the first African American athletics director in the Big Ten. Among his notable accomplishments was the development and implementation of a gender-equity plan that met Title IX laws.
Faculty and academics
David W. Dickson (left) was appointed to the English department as the first African American faculty member in 1948. Dickson later became president of Montclair University in New Jersey.
In 1957, William Harrison Pipes (right) was the first African American faculty member to be granted full professorship. He earned a doctorate in speech and was the first African American in the country to do so.
The Department of African American and African Studies at MSU initially was founded as a doctoral granting program in 2002. An undergraduate minor was created in 2014 to extend the Black studies experience to an undergraduate population. On July 1, 2019, it became a department, and exactly one year after its inception, Professor Ruth Nicole Brown was appointed as inaugural chairperson. Image credit: Department of African American and African Studies.
Integration and inclusion
From 1957 to 1969, MSU President John A. Hannah led the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (Image: Hannah, center, at a meeting of the Civil Rights Commission.)
Ernest Green, a member of the Little Rock Nine, was awarded a full scholarship (by an anonymous donor who was later known to be President Hannah) to attend MSU in 1958. In 2018, Ernest Green returned to campus as homecoming grand marshal.
MSU establishes its legacy as a leader in integrating college football. Duffy Daugherty (left), MSU head football coach from 1954 to 1972, traveled the South recruiting student-athletes who were denied an opportunity to play in their home states. By 1966, the Spartan roster included 20 Black players — an unprecedented number at a time when many major college football programs remained segregated. The 1966 MSU football team won a national championship. Read and watch
Pressured by Professor Robert Green (left, pictured standing) and the Black Student Alliance, President John A. Hannah created the Committee of Sixteen, comprising 10 high-level faculty members and six university administrators, to improve race relations on campus.
The group’s goal was to develop a civil rights plan for the university, which included increasing the number of Black students enrolled; hiring more people of color in faculty, staff and administrative positions; establishing the Center for Race and Urban Affairs, now the Center for Community and Economic Development, to work in the areas of curriculum, community development, research and the design and content of experimental programs; and for the university to commit to culture change and become fully integrated and a socially responsive institution. Of the committee’s plan, President Hannah called it “one of the most significant things to ever happen to the university.”
MSU has hosted many prominent Black figures, from social activists and political icons to celebrated writers, educators, artists and athletes. This timeline highlights just a handful of inspirational speakers who have imparted their wisdom and shared their personal experiences.
Most of Malcolm X’s formative years growing up were spent in Lansing and the surrounding area. In addition to attending school, living, working (including at Coral Gables — a popular spot for MSU students to watch live music and socialize) and marrying his wife at the Lansing courthouse, his years in Michigan were marked by traumatic events. In 1963, at the request of MSU students, Malcolm X spoke on campus. In 2017, his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz gave a speech at Erickson Kiva — the same place her father spoke. Image credit: Tullio Saba/Flickr Creative Commons and WKAR.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. visited campus on Feb. 11, 1965. He spoke to more than 4,000 students and community residents who attended a standing-room-only lecture in the Auditorium, with the overflow crowd packed into the Fairchild Theatre where they could hear King’s speech. His visit marked the kickoff of a fundraising drive for the All-University Student Government-sponsored Student Education Program, or STEP. The STEP program involved sending student and faculty volunteers during the summer of 1965 to assist with outreach efforts at Rust College of Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Maya Angelou, acclaimed American author and poet, first visited campus in 1990 and, most recently in 2005, as the guest commencement speaker for undergraduate students. Angelou received an honorary doctorate in humanities. Image credit: Wharton Center
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left), the South African activist who served as an opponent of apartheid during the 1980s and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, was the featured speaker during the 2009 undergraduate convocation. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Image credit: WKAR
In 2014, U.S. Representative John Lewis (right), one of the “Big Six” leaders of the
American civil rights movement, was a guest speaker for incoming
students during the Academic Welcome at the Breslin Center.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (left), an American writer and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant,” spoke at Wharton Center as part of the World View Lecture Series in 2017.
Claudia Rankine (center), New York Times bestselling poet, professor and recipient of numerous literary awards, was a guest speaker for the MSU Signature Lecture series. Her collaborative exhibition series “Situations,” with filmmaker John Lucas, was featured at the Broad Art Museum from February to December 2020.
Cornel West (right), distinguished speaker and educator on the history and culture of Black people in America, is scheduled to speak Feb. 25, 2021 as part of the Slavery to Freedom lecture series.