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.
Source: K State Collegian | Jakki Thompson