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Stories of African-American STEM Societies: Part 3 — From Sociologists to Engineers


This Black History Month, I’ve dug into the founding stories of African-American STEM societies. In previous posts we’ve covered groups from the 1895 founding of the National Medical Association (part 1) up to the 1969 establishment of the National Association of Mathematicians (part 2). We’re now past halfway, into the 1970s, and off to Washington DC for our first founding story in part 3.


11. Sociologists


Although the Association of Black Sociologists was founded in 1970, their organization’s roots are in 1968, too, with the formation of the Caucus of Black Sociologists within the profession’s national body, the American Sociological Association (ASA):

Black sociologists had joined the ASA since its founding in 1905, however, black membership remained small and never exceeded ten African Americans…[I]n 1968…a group of black and white sociologists interested in civil rights and peace issues joined under the leadership of Tilman C. Cothran, chairman of Atlanta University’s department of sociology. That year, Cothran and his supporters presented the ASA with several resolutions designed to increase black participation…While the ASA council approved the resolutions, black sociologists feared that the response was no more than a token concession of the white male-dominated organization.

Thus, Cothran’s group launched the organization of the ABS at the ASA meeting in 1970. The founding group, consisting of seventy-six members, elected James E. Blackwell national chairman…


Bust of sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, Atlanta University (by me, via Wikimedia Commons)


Their second chairperson, in 1972, was a woman, sociologist of aging, Jacquelyn Johnson Jackson. Earl Wright II and Jean Shin wrote:

According to James E. Blackwell, the first chairperson of the now-formalized CBS in 1970, the Du Bois-Johnson-Frazier Award was born out of a resolution brought forth by Black sociologists at the contentious 1970 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Blackwell said, “Those who presented the [CBS] resolutions were labeled [in highly charged pejorative terms] as ‘careerists,’ and ‘militants.’ In fact, a few prominent sociologists either resigned or threatened to resign from ASA membership because of the positive responses to most of the resolutions.”

The Association of Black Sociologists (ABS), they said, was formalized in 1970. The ABS became independent of the ASA in 1976: it still is. By 1997 they had 150 members, and as well as their earlier newsletter, they started the journal Race and Society in 1998 (now Issues in Race and Society).

(If you have access to The American Sociologist, which I don’t, unfortunately, there are articles on its history by ABS pioneers here and here. There is a biography of Tilman C. Cothran.)

You can find them on their website, and on Twitter, with a banner currently quoting Malcolm X: “Truth is on the side of the oppressed”.


(More on Ella Baker.)


12. Nurses


1971 brings us back to health care. The National Black Nurses Association was founded in 1971.



This one grew from local organizations, rather than through the profession’s national one:

The Civil Rights Movement was the primary impetus that moved black people from all professions and all walks of life to action. Black nurses were no exception…

The founding of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) in 1971 marked a significant milestone in the history of black nurses in the United States, particularly in relation to their association with the American Nurses Association (ANA). Twenty years after the dissolution of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGH), which marked the end of one era in the fight of black nurses for equality and access to membership in ANA, there emerged again an urgent need for another national nursing organization with a primary goal of placing the black nurse in the mainstream of professional nurses…[B]lack nurses in the late 60’s and early 70’s still had very little presence and influence in the leadership of the American Nurses Association…

[O]n December 18-19, 1971, 18 black nurses from across the country met at the home of Dr. Mary Harper, in Cleveland, Ohio. They unanimously voted to approve the following motion made by Betty Smith Williams: “I move that we establish the National Black Nurses Association.”

Lauranne Sams
was the NBNA’s first president, serving till 1977. She was a nursing leader who gained her PhD in 1968. The second photo in this tweet is the founding group:



Now the NBNA represents 150,000 registering, student, and retired nurses. They provide teaching and support, grants and awards. They lobby, and publish a research journal and newsletter.


13. Chemists and Chemical Engineers


In 1972, a group of 7 from around the country got a grant to start the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE – pronounced No-be-shay). There’s an early photo here, and one of the co-founders, William Jackson, has recorded his recollections here.

NOBCChE held its first conference in 1974, and established its first student fellowship in 1987. They promote STEM education in schools and have an annual Science Bowl, too. By 1995, a Technical Program had produced more than 100 papers.

NOBCChE’s first president was William Guillory., and the first woman to hold the post was Winifred Burks-Houck in 1993. NOBCChE is on Twitter.


Photo of children
85 elementary school children attending an NOBCCHE science exhibition in 2015 (Susan A. Romero via US Air Force)



14. Cardiologists


At first, it was more about camaraderie than anything else. [PDFRichard Allen Williams was a cardiologist in the Watts area of Los Angeles, attending the American Heart Association (AHA) meeting in Dallas in 1974:

Among the tens of thousands of attendees… was a handful of Black physicians and scientists, most of whom had traveled from urban academic medical centers across the United States. Although easily identifiable amidst the large convention crowds, few of the Black physician-scientists at this, or any previous AHA meetings, knew each other. They rushed from meeting to meeting and from exhibit to exhibit; and beyond prideful glancing smiles or ethnic nods of greeting, there was little contact…

As he observed the few “brown” faces appear and disappear, Williams decided to attempt at gathering the Black cardiologists for dinner and a meeting. Over a meal, they could get to know each other, share camaraderie, and discuss issues of mutual concern to them and their patients…

The Association of Black Cardiologists [ABC] was founded on Monday evening, November 18, 1974, at a local steak and ribs restaurant in Downtown Dallas…

The ABC was created to address issues that the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and the general cardiology community had long ignored: the disproportionate burden of cardiovascular disease and inequities in cardiovascular care for African Americans.

Williams was elected the first president. Campaigns, scholarships, research, scientific meetings, continuing education and alleviating student debt, and more followed. The ABC started a journal in 1994 as well.



Elizabeth Ofili became the first woman president of ABC in 2000.

The ABC website is here, and they are on Twitter.


15. Engineers


First up in 1975 was the mighty National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The organization formally arrived in April, but their story began with 2 undergrads in 1971:

Two Purdue University undergraduates, Edward Barnette (now deceased) and Fred Cooper, approached the dean of engineering at Purdue University in 1971 with the concept of starting the Black Society of Engineers (BSE). They wanted to establish a student organization to help improve the recruitment and retention of black engineering students. In the late 1960s, a devastating 80 percent of the black freshmen entering the university’s engineering program were dropping out. The dean agreed to the idea and assigned the only black faculty member on staff, Arthur J. Bond, Ph.D., as advisor.

Barnett served as the first president of BSE. The fledgling group gained momentum in 1974, with the direction and encouragement of Dr. Bond and the active participation of the young African-American men whose destiny was to become the founders of NSBE. Now known as “the Chicago Six,” these men were Edward A. Coleman, Anthony Harris, Brian Harris, Stanley L. Kirtley, John W. Logan Jr. and George A. Smith. (Kirtley and Logan are now deceased.)



John Cason served as their first president, and Virginia Booth (-Womack) was the first woman to hold the position (1978-1980). They were junior and sophomore students respectively at the founding meeting. Click the image below to hear Booth-Womack talk about the founding of NSBE and being black at a mostly white university – sadly cut off at 5 gripping minutes, with a treasure trove of photos:



There was no joking around and no kidding. Get up, get the work done, and get on outta here – with your engineering degree. [Virginia Booth-Womack]

NSBE boomed. From their website:

NSBE has grown from six to more than 17,000 members, and its annual meeting has blossomed into the Annual Convention, hosting more than 13,000 attendees. NSBE has more than 500 active chapters in the U.S. and abroad: 148 NSBE Jr. (pre-collegiate), 291 collegiate and 84 NSBE Professionals chapters.

Headquartered in Alexandria, Va., NSBE offers academic excellence programs, scholarships, leadership training, professional development and access to career opportunities for thousands of members annually and provides opportunities for their success that remain unmatched by any other organization.

NSBE’s mission is “to increase the number of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.” The main goal of the Society’s current 10-year Strategic Plan is to lead the United States to produce 10,000 Black Engineers annually by 2025.

NSBE is very active on Twitter.



Coming next…. anthropologists, geoscientists, physicists, and more!


This is the third of a 4-part series for Black History Month 2019:

Part 1 – The first wave (1895 to 1947)

Part 2 – From Psychologists to Mathematicians

Part 4 — From Anthropologists to Academic Surgeons



I took the photo of Atlanta University and the W.E.B. DuBois bust in 2017: via Wikimedia Commons.

The children attending an NOBCCHE science exhibition in 2015 are from Endeavour Elementary Magnet School in Cocoa, Florida. Their participation was sponsored by the Air Force Technical Applications Center. US Air Force photo by Susan A. Romero.

I cropped and saved in black and white the Wikimedia Commons photo of John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the ceremony to receive their medals at the 1968 Olympics.



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