In the wake of war, new battle lines are drawn

There was no return to “normal” after World War II.  Neither work nor study relapsed to the drab crawl of the Depression years. Rather, campus pulsed and quickened, and a handful of African Americans broke co-op’s color barrier on the heels of the war and the changes it had brought. They were a small group known as the “Pioneers,” coming to UC at a time when racial segregation in the United States was palpably real even as Cincinnati’s black population grew by 41 percent in the 1940s and 50s. 

While UC co-op had never “officially” been off-limits to blacks, African Americans had been effectively barred from engineering and business programs because of the co-op work requirement in these programs. African American students could not fulfill that requirement since employers would not accept them for co-op work positions. 

One former co-op coordinator recalled, “To place blacks, you had to canvas the whole area. It was never easy. To place African American women…that was the hardest of all.” Former co-op head Sam Sovilla confirms, “You had to try and counteract the resistance to African Americans both in the classroom and in the workplace. We’d send a well-qualified African American junior or senior co-op on an interview with younger, less-qualified white students, hoping the employer would opt to hire the African American.”

The first African Americans in UC’s co-op course were Henry Thomas Brown and Clark Beck, who graduated together in 1955. Both remember those years as ones of intense personal struggle. 

Beck had actually tried to enter Purdue University after first earning a mathematics degree from Virginia Union University. “After I got that first degree, I set out to do what I’d wanted to do all along, go to engineering school. I proudly drove to Purdue with my mother and with my transcript in hand. The dean there wouldn’t even open the envelope to look at the transcript. He said that I should go into the industrial arts to teach my people how to build houses. He said that my people couldn’t be engineers,” Beck recalls. 

“He broke my heart, and I left with tears in my eyes. Mom and I drove straight from there to UC because I’d heard of the co-op program, and I figured it would pay my way after the first year…Even though I arrived unannounced, the dean came out of a meeting to see me. He looked at my transcript and said, ‘You can come if you want to, but you’ll catch hell…’”

Brown similarly recalls that in those days, all students submitted photos with college applications. After applying to study chemical engineering at UC in 1949, he further recalls receiving a letter asking him to come in for a summertime interview. According to Brown, “I took the letter to the only professional I knew, a lawyer at the YMCA. He read it and looked away. He said, ‘You’ll be interviewed to tell you the hardships of engineering, to be told that no black has ever been there before, and they’ve never had a black graduate.’  That’s just what happened too. It was done to discourage me from entering, but at the end of that interview, I just said, ‘Thank you. I’ll be here in September.’”

Brown still recalls that even though his grades were so good that he made the dean’s list every quarter and eventually just missed graduating first in his engineering class, UC could not find him an actual engineering co-op. “At first, my coordinator could only find me a laborer’s position on the factory floor of Republic Steel up in Cleveland,” states Brown. “I filled in on positions for people while they were on vacation. But, it was money, and I took the co-op.” Except for a year’s co-op in industry, Brown had to work the remainder of his co-op quarters in campus labs. 

Likewise, Beck struggled throughout his UC years even while the American economy boomed after World War II. His first year at the university — before he began co-opping during his sophomore year at Wright Patterson Air Force Base — was grueling.  First, no place near campus would rent to him. He said, “They were always ‘all full.’” So Beck at last found lodging in Walnut Hills, a single room in a three-story house.  No running water.  No kitchen. No refrigerator. 

He went on, “I had absolutely no money and ate nothing but canned meats and canned goods my mother sent me in care packages. I’d eat half a can in the morning, set it on the windowsill outside in the winter cold, and then eat the other half at night. I hated it when the classroom was quiet, and everyone could hear my stomach growl. I hated the quiet because I had to cough so bad or sneeze, because I was so often sick with strep throat, which brought up a green mucous…Those were terrible years.  I survived, but barely.”

And both Brown and Beck recall that — always — when it came to co-op, there were some students who didn’t return to campus from their work assignments, opting to drop out and work or enter another area of study. Today, Beck laughs, “They were always surprised to see me coming back, but I did.  Day by day, I got through. I was determined, and I always remembered a phrase attributed to Abraham Lincoln: I will work hard and get ready, and some day, my chance will come.”