About Joseph Douglas
Joseph Douglas was born on 31 October 1926 in Indianapolis, Indiana. His mother, a teacher, influenced Douglas' respect for education. After graduating from Crispus Attucks High School, Douglas went on to Purdue University to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. Douglas volunteered for the Air Force and was trained in the final class of the Tuskegee Airmen. Dismissed by the Air Force as World War II ended, Douglas returned to Purdue to complete his studies. Upon graduation he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Rural Electrification Administration of the Department of Agriculture. Douglas was hired just as U.S. President Harry Truman's executive order integrated the civil service, and he faced racial discrimination while conducting his engineering field work. After several years with the REA, Douglas took a teaching position at Southern University in Baton Rouge and simultaneously earned his Master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri. Douglas and his family relocated to York, Pennsylvania, in response to increases in racial violence in the 1950s South. Douglas beame the first African American professor of engineering at Penn State University. Later he served as associate dean of Penn State’s Commonwealth campuses. Douglas received multiple awards from from Penn State and the Pennsylvania State Board of Higher Education for the excellence of his teaching. Douglas' IEEE service includes work as chapter chairman and as Region 2 Director (1985-1986). Douglas has also performed community service as teacher of after-school mathematics and engineering programs.
In this interview, Douglas details the stages of his education and career. Douglas describes his Air Force training, academic coursework, and REA fieldwork. He details his own teaching experiences and philosophies and addresses the role of the IEEE in the engineering profession. Douglas describes the significance of electrical engineering education at Pennsylvania State University, in spite of difficulty attracting Penn State students to the field. Throughout his comments, Douglas analyzes the historical influences of racial discrimination.
About the Interview
Joseph Douglas: An Interview Conducted by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, 17 December 2007
Interview # 476 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Joseph Douglas, an oral history conducted in 2007 by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.
Interviewee: Joseph F. Douglas
Interviewer: Robert Colburn
Also Present: Mary Ann Hoffman, IEEE History Center
Date: 17 December 2007
Location: Middletown, PA, USA
This is an oral history interview with Professor Joseph Douglas. It is 17th December, 2007. And the interview is taking place at Penn State in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Professor Douglas, thank you very, very much for agreeing to be interviewed.
Glad to be here.
I’d like to start with asking you about your early childhood education, how you got interested in engineering and to lead the interview from, from there. And most of all, I’d like it to be about what you would like to talk about.
You want to start with the childhood--
Start with your childhood--
--if that would be--
Well, I don’t often think about this. But the way you put the question makes me appreciate what my childhood was like. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who was a school teacher. Now I say that now. At the time, I didn’t think it was so fortunate.
But we got our, we got our homework done every night. And then I would sit around if I got mine done and see what she was doing for her classes. And it was almost like going to an educational college, seeing how she graded her papers and all this sort of thing. And that’s where I first got the urge and the want--the desire to teach. I didn’t express it orally, but just thinking about it. And later on, when it became time to think about occupation, teaching somewhere was what I wanted to do.
I see. So what got you interested in electrical engineering or engineering in your early education?
I was a tinkerer and loved to see how things operated. I think the thing that either scared me into or tried to scare me out of electrical engineering was a little run in I had with a light socket one time. I would see how lights would come on when you’d plug things in. And so I was just going to tinker around one time. I took a curtain rod--this was in the days when they had open sockets. I think they stopped it after I came through where you would screw things in there and light things up. But that meant when the thing was unscrewed there was an open circuit there. So as a child I said I wonder what makes this thing operate. So I took the curtain rod and stuck it in there. So when they got me off of the back wall there and revived me, I soon learned don’t do that anymore. And I kept thinking about that. What is this stuff that threw me across the room like that and darn near killed me, I guess? But even though I guess I should’ve been afraid of electricity after that, I was just very aware of it and wanted to see more about how it operated and all this sort of thing. So what a start.
Were you one of those people who liked to take apart toys and find out how they worked? And what were some of your earliest electrical tinkerings other than--?
I think the thing that fell prey to my interests were alarm clocks. So any clocks that were being thrown out, I would just take over. I said, okay, I’ll take that. And I was amazed the number of screws and wheels and bolts and things that came out of this thing. And I don’t, I don’t recall ever being able to get the thing back together again. [Laughter]. I was trying to see where--what makes this thing run? And by the time I got down to what made it run, it wouldn’t run. But I found out later on after I was an adult and found out how to do these things in an orderly manner. That was a lot of fun.
What about some of your early education that, I guess, was at a school and how it led you to Purdue?
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The longer I lived, the more amazed I am and thankful for having gone to that high school. It was the youngest high school in the City of Indianapolis and the only one for blacks at that time. We had a crazy situation there. Blacks and whites had gone to school for all the years before this. But the Klan had come to Indiana in the early ‘20s. And they figured that things must change. So schools had to be separate and all this other thing. So bless their hearts, they operated differently then than they do now. Nowadays, you build something for blacks and it’s about as cheap as it can get. But I think the black community put the screws on them and said, look, if we want to have a school here, we want all the accoutrements that we can have. And that school is still standing and doing a great job, full line of classes and majors and all this other thing. But that’s where I really got an interest in getting down to business.
I recall I had a foreign language every term I was there. I studied--let’s see what I had first--Latin, then German; Latin because I knew at that time I was going to do something in science. And that was the basic language for the field. And electrical, there was a lot of good, lot of good stuff in print in German. So I said I need that. So between those two, that kept me busy and four years of English--I can even still speak today--kept me, kept me pretty busy. But I enjoyed it.
And I look back on those days and see the wonderful students who’ve come through and are coming through. And it makes me appreciate that setup. But that’s what got me started and kept me going.
I was on the college track there. And I guess I could’ve gone anyplace I wanted. But since Purdue was right there in my home state, I said why go anyplace else, plus the fact that I had a brother and sister older than I was who had gone to Purdue ahead of me. So since we’d always been the great threesome, I said, okay, I’d come to Purdue also. So I had a very good time there.
But let me, let me tell you a little bit. I got a lot of good thoughts about Purdue. But when I was there, Purdue wasn’t so good to black people. Number one, couldn’t live in the dormitories. So we had to go up and find places out of the community where we could stay, which was probably better for me, didn’t get in as much trouble as you do in those dormitories, and met some wonderful people, international students, plus students from other parts of the country. And it gave us a good international background.
Had to study by myself most of the time. I guess I was a pariah to people. Don’t be associated with that guy. He’ll get you into difficulty. So I said, okay, and studied alone until probably junior or senior year when people finally found out that I wasn’t going to do anything harmful to them and had some good buddies who studied with me. And that’s very, very helpful.
When we study together, we talk back and forth. And everybody doesn’t get--catch the idea at the same time. And that was really amazing to me. I could sit in my room for three hours and study something and up and down, up and down, and end up with nothing. Two or three people get together, and some are up, and some are down. And they finally say, okay, let’s do, let’s do it this way. And everybody comes out a winner. So in my last couple years at Purdue, I finally had a chance to study with some of the white students. And we helped each other. And it was great.
I have mixed emotions about my college days. But I have forgiven them for their errant ways and now support Purdue fully, financially and otherwise.
Air Force, Tuskegee Airmen
Thank you. I wanted to ask then about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Beg your pardon?
Yes. I guess I’m a--I don’t guess about it, but I am a very inquiring person. When WWII first started, I was 15 years old. And I said, well, let’s see. It’ll be two years before the Army will come looking for me. And they’ll probably--the war will probably be over by then--wishful thinking. Well, it wasn’t over. And I had to come to a conclusion now which branch of the service are you going into?
The Airmen had been in operation for two years. And I said to myself, well, what would you rather do in the service? Would you rather walk or fly? I said I think I’ll take the plane. Probably safer up there, but it’s easier on the feet.
So I went down to the local Air Force Office in the middle of the day. It was in a summer day, and only--the only guy in the, in the place besides the recruiting officer. So we had our little discussion and he gave me the test. And of course, I wasn’t worried about the test. And I went off the top of the chart on that thing, passed it. And all I’d do then was go back to what I was doing and wait for the Air Force to call me.
My buddies, whom I had told I was going to go in to volunteer for the Air Force, said, oh man, what are you going to do that for? They’ll grab you right away. Well, I must say I was the guy who was still sitting at my desk at Purdue as they were leaving to the Army. I said, okay, I’ll see you guys. Have a good time.
So the Army--the Air Force took me when they had the next class starting, which was the following spring. So I saw a lot of my buddies pulled off to the Army in the meantime.
But that, that was a dream come true to be in the Air Force and to do something I had never thought I would be doing, flying a plane, never been up in a plane in my life. So when we finally got to that first experience with flying, I remember the plane going up. And I was holding onto something and looked down and saw that ground going away from me. I said what am I doing here? Fine time to think about that. You’re going up. That’s where you’re going.
But I had always been a little bit queasy in elevators and things, you know. I said if this thing falls, we’re going to have a big calamity down here. But here is this plane rising. I said when is the bottom going to drop out of this, all these kind of things. But never had a sickness or anything, never had an upset stomach, finally quieted myself down, and then came to enjoy it, had a great time getting ready for the Air Force experience.
Did they train you as a pilot?
Yes. I was in pilot training. And as I say, I was 17 then. And we were then within a year of war ending. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time. But I did not get to finish the flight training. The flight training lasted about probably ten months. So when we were in our last--had just begun our last three months of training, the war was coming to an end. And the Air Force decided to stop training any more pilots. So I didn’t get to finish that program. But I enjoyed what I got there.
Did you get a chance to solo?
Yes. I’m glad you asked that. I forgot where I was in my story. Yes. I soloed in the BT-17. That’s a little biplane, had great time with that. And since the war was coming to--they hoped that the war was coming to an end, they wanted to get more pilots ready to go overseas and help to get this thing done with. So they skipped our intermediate plane. You were supposed to go from a BT-17 to an advanced trainer--grade 4 I guess they called. Instead of that, they said skip the 4 and go to the 6, which was the heaviest plane for training. And we thought we were flying in full Air Force planes when we got into the 650 horsepower machine. We had a great time and got about two-thirds of the way through that. And August came. The war ended. Our program ended. And we just sat there for a couple months while they just tried to decide what to do with us. But we didn’t fly anymore. But it was great while it lasted.
Post-war studies at Purdue
What did you do then?
After I returned from that training, after I came back down to earth again, I waited for the next semester started at Purdue and went back because I knew from having seen people in the community, if they stayed out of school too long, even those who were very good at studying, they would drift into something else. And I heard so many stories. Gee, I wish I had gone back to college, all this sort of thing, all this sort of thing. So as I told you, my mother was a teacher. So I didn’t have to worry about that. She was going to make sure, you know, when you get settled down here and get yourself back together again and that term starts, [popping noise] back to college you’re going.
And I went back kind of half kicking and screaming but realizing that’s where I needed to be and went back and saw college in a different way. I hadn’t realized at the time I was older psychologically, physically, and was maturing. They’d all said I was much too young when I went there at first. And this had been a time for me to really settle down and get to understand things more fully. So that, that next part of my college life was much better than the first because I was ready for it, looking forward to it, and really got into it, had a great time, and got much, much better grades also.
Mathematics courses at Purdue
What was the curriculum like? Or what were some of the courses that you took if you remember?
At Purdue that you feel prepared you particularly well?
Well, I’m glad you put that last part on there. Looking back on things, I hated them at the time, mathematics every semester, some physics or science along with it. And now I can’t pick up a textbook that it doesn’t require something to learn in one of those 15 or 20 courses. It wasn’t that many, but eight courses. But they wanted to make sure that if you’re going to call yourself an engineer, you know how to do these things that are based on mathematics input. So I was a much better student when I got back to Purdue, older mentally, physically, and attitudinally--that’s an important one--and did a much better job, really began to enjoy it.
Graduation and employment search; employment discrimination
And when you graduated, how did that feel when you--having overcome some of the racism and other barriers that may have imposed? How did it feel when you had that degree?
That brought me into another bit of difficulty--excuse me while I take care of something here.
Okay. To go back to the question about graduation.
I got many, many thoughts there. There’s some happy ones and some sad ones. Graduation brings on thoughts of completing classes, looking forward to a professional job someplace, and getting out of school. It was always interesting to hear some of the other students who had interviewed various corporations right there on campus and had gotten responses to their interviews. And they said, oh, such and such a company has hired me. And I’ll be reporting to them on such and such a date that would be in the next several weeks right after graduation.
There were some companies that interviewed me. But they let it be known right there that we, we haven’t been hiring any black graduates. And that really shocked me. I figured that at a school like Purdue you would take students wherever they were. But industry wasn’t, wasn’t ready for that yet.
So then I went into my writing campaign. I wrote to many of the social service agencies who were mainly interested in helping people to find jobs in the community in the normal range of things. But I was writing to them to ask them to find out what the situation was for blacks in this professional bracket.
And I guess the Urban League wouldn’t mind my using their name. They were one of the outstanding groups who were working to help blacks get located in industries that had not accepted them in the past. So I said, okay, I’ll write to the Urban League, wrote to them. And they worked at it and worked at it. And they finally came back with an answer that no one was willing to start that procedure at this time of hiring blacks. And I couldn’t believe it. I said, oh my gosh. They tell that to a Purdue graduate. I thought we were top of the list everywhere. But then it became evident to me that we were on a rough road here.
And of course, I should’ve known it before that because the first place I tried was in my hometown of Indianapolis and where they know the quality of education at the high school there, then the quality work at the college, right in the same state. And they didn’t want me either. So I tried another social service agency, a couple more out in the east. And they were perplexed also, just nothing happening after 12th grade or after, after college I should say.
So I’m sitting here pondering this thing. And I think I had written a letter to a couple of the power agencies in the federal government, one out west and one in Washington, D.C. One was Bonneville Power Administration. And the other was REA, Rural Electrification Administration. And waiting to see what’s going to happen.
And I think those two may have sent me some preliminary information. And I had not discussed race with them yet. So they weren’t offering anything but just saying here’s what we have if we were talking about hiring.
In that same week, President Truman signed his presidential order that all government agencies would honor and work with qualified graduates no matter what their race. I was shocked, beautifully shocked. And I suppose early the next week, both Bonneville and REA wrote to me and were interested in my completing application. You talk about the power of the pen. That was it.
Rural Electrification Administration
So REA finally called me on the phone, which is unusual. You almost have to beg people at that point to give you a phone call. But when they want you, they know how to get you. Head of Personnel at Department of Agriculture called me and asked me a few questions about my own records and all this other thing and said we’d like to, we’d like to interview you further. And our agricultural agent is right there in Marion County. And we’ll have him stop by your home and give you a preliminary interview. And I said, great, any day. I have nothing else to do.
So I think it was about two days later he came, the Ag agent, to the door. And I think that--I don’t, I don’t know whether they had told him my race or not. But he was still shocked when I came to the door and identified myself. He was fumbling for words there. So he finally gave me my little interview. And I answered all of his questions and satisfied him. And he went on his way.
I heard later on that he was, he was not prepared for that, that interview. He thought it was a routine thing. And of course, before that all of his appointments had been with white people. And they forgot we’re in a new day now. You better tell this guy something. So he was the one left out and didn’t really know how to react but went through the thing, sent the papers in. And I think I got a call two days later or two days after the letter arrived at Washington. And they wanted to know how soon I could get there. Well, that was great to have somebody really interested in doing something that I had wanted to do.
So it still surprised me once I got to Washington, got settled down on the job, that about two or three weeks after I got there, the department photographers came down to see me. And the other people in the office were wondering what’s going on here. And I--when I talked to them later, they said they didn’t do that for me. Everybody else was white, I must say. Everybody else in the office was white.
Then I reviewed for them what had gone on in the course of time. And maybe they hadn’t seen this thing in the paper that the President signed this order, didn’t affect them. So there we were.
But I explained it to them. Then they understood the situation. And so I went--what a scramble I’d come through to get there. And I guess they were really surprised that I was such a willing worker. I guess I could’ve called my own shots there and gotten away with it. But I just wanted to come in, get a job, and do what an engineer does in that situation.
And fortunately, the head of that office felt the same way. And after I’d gotten assigned some projects, I guess I made my first field trip about eight or ten months later. And that’s the key thing when you can go out on a field trip, talk to the field engineers, and co-op people and get business done, then you’re on your way. And I did it without a hitch. There were some people out on the far end there who weren’t quite ready for me. But they found that I wasn’t going to do them any harm. So they just let that lie. And I didn’t attack anybody. Nobody attacked me. So we were all straight. But it was a new day for everybody. I was quite unhappy with the way that thing had proceeded from Purdue. I always figured that Purdue should have had something to say. I said look at the record. Here’s the man. We’ve had no problem with him. He should be considered. But that day hadn’t come yet there. And I thought Purdue would be happy to get rid of me after all that upset. But you know, I think I’ve got about five tons of mail at home, magazines and everything else. They never leave me out on something that’s coming through. And of course, I’ve been very, very gracious to them. And they’ve been one of the top recipients of my gifts, monetary gifts. I just have to wash those earlier days out of my mind and say, okay, you are a graduate of this school. So do what graduates do and keep going.
As if we were waiting for somebody to join me here. [Laughter]. The invisible man.
REA fieldwork in North Dakota
And next I’d like to ask you for some of the projects that you did for them and also then to get into your IEEE activities.
I think one trip I did for, for REA is a classic. I need to tell you about the trip itself, experiences when I got out to the site. They’re all things that happened interestingly. And I’m glad they never happened again. I think about my trip for REA was out to North Dakota to a power customer, power distributor. And the first thing that happened was before I left DC.
Just a little side note, trains come into DC on a certain track. And there is no turnaround in DC. They have to come in and back out, all the way about ten miles or so to some staging area and go on. Well, I think it was the day before, the day before I was to take my trip to North Dakota, train had come in from Baltimore on its usual run. And it’s a wonder--maybe a movie has been done about this. It’s a classic. Train was coming down this corridor. And the station men along the way--tower men I should call them--report back to the center how the train is doing and all this other thing. And each one was saying the train is doing a certain number of miles. And then they get closer, hasn’t slowed down yet, still coming. And found out that the very last train had lost its brakes, was rolling doing about 25 miles an hour. That’s as much as it could slow down. And the stationmaster simply said clear the station. He said we’ve got a hot one coming in. The train came in, hit the backstop, knocked it through the ceiling, went in on the concourse floor, and fell into the basement. This was back in 1952 I believe. And you can imagine what I was thinking. I said I’m going out of there tomorrow?
But I don’t believe anybody was killed. The engineer was kind of banged up there. But--and the crazy part, that basement where it fell in was a post office department. All those people got out of the way in time. None of them were injured. That was miraculous. And the only person who received any hurts was the conductor, the engineer. And he couldn’t leave his post. He was supposed to stay there with it. But he couldn’t get it stopped, went through the backstop and down into the basement.
But it kind of shook up those of us who were going out in those next few days. What’s going to happen when we go out of here? But it went well. I did my field trip. And here I am today. One of those things that you don’t forget quickly, part of the parade of thoughts that go through your mind.
But I should say once I did get to North Dakota, had a great time using my engineering skills, looking over power line projects and drawings. And we’d go out and go along the line and check things. And each time I would visit out there, if I was with a different engineer, his first amazement was that I knew anything, that I knew what I was talking about, not because of my school but just because of my race, just weren’t used to seeing black people doing anything.
But we had a good time getting to know each other. And I got one surprise. The one surprise was not racial. I was--had just come out of my hotel for the morning, going down to the cooperative, the REA cooperative. And I noticed that my upper lip felt like it was stiff. Oh, I forgot to say this was January, January in North Dakota. We come from a cold state. But Indiana never got that cold. And I felt this thing on my lip. And I stopped at a store window and looked in. And ice had formed on my mustache. Just the breath, the moisture on my breath had come out and frozen there. I could, I could barely laugh then because my lip was frozen. But soon as I got inside, I had to just burst out laughing and get this thing chipped away. But you learn by doing.
AIEE and IEEE
Yes, indeed. And then I would like to ask about your IEEE involvement, when you became involved with the IEEE and why and some of the things you’ve done along the way within the organization.
It’s interesting. We had, we had an IEEE--or AIEE at the time. The years make the difference. I thought I would never, never forget the term AIEE. But it has kind of washed away over these last 30 years or so. We had electrical up at Purdue. But after I looked at my schedule, study schedule, class schedule, I just could not commit myself, not even one evening a week, to the student club there. I said if I go to the club, I’ll miss out on some study, and my grades will drop even more. So I said I’ll just leave out--leave that out, but will get back to it after graduation. And that’s, that’s what I did.
So I was a late starter. But once I got started with it, I hooked right in. So that meant that I didn’t become acquainted with the AIEE until I got to Washington and got settled down and joined them in their chapter at DC and have been with them ever since--been with the AIEE/IEEE ever since.
And what are some of the things that you feel IEEE has helped with either your career or other engineers, things that you feel it should be doing?
Oh, I think it’s marvelous the number of contacts that we have through IEEE that direct us in various processes or procedures, sometimes away from our direct field activities, but keep us in contact with what’s going on to each side and on the straight path here. So that has always been something important. The magazines they’ve put out and the special articles that are written and passed around, that is the heart of IEEE. And I guess the publications are so good that many members don’t even bother to go to meetings. That’s the bad part. I know that as a chapter chairman, you look up and we’ve got 200 people in the area who could be in the chapter. And we have maybe 20 or 30 people who come to the meetings. Well, they haven’t forgotten you. They’re busy reading all that other material that comes directly to their homes. And they just don’t take that extra effort to come out to the meeting. But I know I fought with that as a chapter chairman trying to get people to come out to meetings, finding things that are of interest. But we’re so, we’re so efficient in getting word out in print and other ways nowadays that guys just don’t come to the meetings --guys and gals.
And Joe, what was it like to be Region 2 Director? And what years were those?
Oh, she’s really trying my memory now. The years were ’85 and ’86. Delightful things--I think it’s great because this whole thing’s run by engineers. Everything was structured. People have a hard time --many people have a hard time connecting with being the officer of this or officer of something else. But with IEEE, they hand you a book and say here’s what officer chairmen do. And so you read through that. And you know how to open your meetings, how to direct them, and how to get people to do work and all this sort of thing. So that was, that was very delightful and really enjoyed it.
And they make it convenient for people to travel. The organization pays for travel to national meetings since all of the regional people and some of the chapter officers have to go to meetings at the national level also. You travel. You go to your meetings. You get to visit other venues at that location. And it’s a real professional setting. You’re doing your particular work. And you’re also joining in the work of those around you.
So it’s a busy time but very enjoyable and fruitful time. I enjoyed it. And my wife enjoyed my days at that because she joined me on most of those trips.
And can you speak a little about the Latimer Project?
Yes, the Latimer Project is a very interesting one. And it’s not a clear cut thing. There are a lot of racial overtones there, not just the ones of white/black, but there’s--Latimer lived in the days when many blacks didn’t get along with each other because some blacks were getting along with whites. And some blacks were not getting along with whites. And then those blacks didn’t get along with each other. So it was a very mixed up time. I thought it would’ve been an easy time when you were just kind of pulled apart. But they were pulled apart in different ways and made it quite difficult.
Poor Brother Latimer, skilled engineer that he was, couldn’t call all the shots himself in that difficult situation. So we don’t see much information about him. But he did well technically. And he did as well as he could do under the circumstances from the position of personal contacts. So I’ve looked up a lot of material on him. And that’s the kind of conclusion that I come to, that he did what he could do under those circumstances.
I often wonder why we didn’t see more of him printed up in the black press. But there was a lot of misunderstanding in those days.
He was the only African-American who was an Edison Pioneer.
Teaching after-school engineering and mathematics programs
So Joe, can you talk a little bit about your transition from your government work into your teaching?
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Yes. Trying to think back now--what thoughts was I having when I did that. I had always wanted to teach, what with a mother who was a teacher and a grandmother who was a teacher and a couple more back in the family somewhere. But it’s just a love of sharing what you know with others. And if you can get past the discipline difficulties, then you’re in. Some people just can’t put up with that discipline. And I imagine --I don’t imagine--I know it’s worse today. I’ve worked with kids since I retired from my college work. And majority of the kids just don’t have the interest in school now. There’s so many other things to get into. A class session is just all over the place.
I remember my first, my first day in an after-school session of acquainting students with engineering and with mathematics. If we just stuck with the mathematics, that would be it because most students don’t know enough about that to get anywhere. But so we’ll start out with some math. And then we talk about some of the engineering projects, but finding the things that are interesting in math. What are some of the math skills? Don’t make it more difficult than it is. Always use the things that come easily and do their thing and don’t try to change them and enjoy it.
But even there, after the kids have been in school all day long and you come to a special program, let’s say, in the afternoon, they’re all over the place. I used to walk into the room to start the class in the afternoon about 4:00. And they’re all over the walls, all over the place, cutting up and carrying on. And it would take me a good five minutes to get them settled down. Part of it they tell me is this high system of nerves that they have after a full day in school of holding it in. We catch it if we come in there in those after-school hours and try to get something done.
And yet there’s some who are just as meek and mild and sit there waiting for the things to get started, for the class to get started, and others who you can’t get their attention to get them to settle down. But still something that I tell people who are still young enough to get in there and do this, go do it. There’s some who will respond and, you know, do wonderfully.
I see kids on the street today. Hi, Douglas. How you doing? All this other thing. And always glad to tell me what they’re doing now, that they’re doing something besides mistreating somebody on the street or something. And some are in jobs of mathematical interest and other things like that and doing well at it. Just a matter of getting past that school-age elation and getting down to business. But they’re always glad to let me know that they finally settled down. And I am happy to see that.
Well, at Agriculture, after seven or eight years there, I figured I had done and found out what I wanted to find out. So I went back to something that had occurred to me many years before that. I had always wanted to teach. It was in my blood. But I wanted to gather some of the skills of the workplace and community before I went to the school to be well prepared. So after eight years at Agriculture, I figured I had accumulated what I needed and then began to look around at various colleges that were starting engineering programs or continuing programs and see what help I could be.
Well, Southern University contacted me and said that they were just beginning a program in engineering. And they’re a very strong college down in Louisiana. And I could tell from the first time I talked to Dean Thurman that this guy wants an engineer down there. And he’s going to do his very best to get me. So they paid for my flight down there to look them over and let me look them over. Went down there in the worst weather, heavy rain storm, got wet going from the plane to the car and the car to the building. But I soon found out that, well, this is normal weather for this time of year in Louisiana. So you’ll get used to it.
But I enjoyed that and saw the students at work and on the campus, very quiet, dignified, well ordered, and began to get pictures of what I could do in a situation like that, what I could transmit to them, and fulfill some of the dreams that I had in this area.
So when I got back to Washington and talked it over with my wife, I guess the way I was talking about it, she knew I was pretty well convinced that that was it. So she figured out some things that she could get done down there also. So we decided that we would go to Baton Rouge. And that we did for the next eight years.
I don’t know why it is we did these things in groups of eight. We stayed at Baton Rouge for eight years and then went on to something else. But maybe there’s something--some little mechanism in the mind there saying, okay, you’ve done it now. Move on. But they appreciated what we did. I liked what we had done and went on to something else.
Perhaps you think in octaves.
That might be it. That might be it. I do like music. So that could have an effect there.
And then after Baton Rouge, where did you head?
Graduate studies, U. of Missouri
Baton Rouge--back to--yes, I saw the need for further education. So I spent a year at University of Missouri to get a Master’s degree to get me a level further than the students finishing undergraduate school. And it helped me in some of my particular thinking on advanced mathematics and things like that. It made teaching more interesting I trust.
But when we knew that our venture at Baton Rouge was coming to a close as the times got tougher. In other words, we were now in the ‘50s, in the late ‘50s. And this was the time of great racial stirrings and uproar. When it hit in the Baton Rouge area, I said, well, this is time for us to move on.
So we moved back east. I thought we were going to end up at Connecticut. The company I had dealt with through our contact was located in Connecticut. And that’s where I went to interview. So we actually had a very pleasant interview. They said, oh, that’s great. We’d be glad to have you to join us as we move into our new location at York, Pennsylvania, which is interesting. I had not thought about going to York before. But my grandparents had lived in York some years before. My grandfather was a minister. And I said, well, that would be interesting to go there. And then I remembered that I had heard my mother speak of having visited York. She visited York while her parents were there to show them her first offspring. And that was her first venture to York. So I said, well, I might as well make it a completion and go there. So we made our way to York, PA.
And that was, that was not without its overtones of race. Never thought about--much about race when I went to Louisiana because everything was so outlined. You knew what square you were supposed to be in. And you were well informed when you got out of that square. At York, everything looks the same. And I figure I can go down there and get any house I wanted and all those sort of thing, called some realtors over the phone. And they said, oh, we can show you properties here and here and here. And I didn’t, I didn’t bother to say I was black. As a comedian used to say, they’d find out soon enough. But it would’ve shortened our conversations because if I had known what they were thinking, I said I might as well end this thing now.
Well, this guy took me out to show me some housing in one of the suburbs of York. And in the meantime, he was toning everything down. He says, well, I don’t know whether you would like it very much here. These houses are kind of close together and that sort of thing. And I had already thought that myself. But I could see what he wanted. He wanted to get rid of me. So I said, oh, I don’t think this is what I want. So he drove me back to my motel.
I got on the phone, called another realtor and told him that I was black. Well, that got us to first base right off the bat. He said, oh, I know just the man who can help you. And I’m so glad I--
Some other things came up. And as I say, Latimer wasn’t as popular a name as I had thought it would be. And it didn’t catch on like we had hoped. So I went on to something else--
Penn State University
York campus, Capitol campus (Harrisburg)
Okay. I’d also like to ask you about your teaching at Penn State and particularly at this campus here, your work beginning the engineering program here.
I have been into so many things with the Penn State University. I’m trying to think where I should start. Well, I guess I’ll just do it quickly. I started at the York campus teaching electrical engineering. And several years later, a job became available with the--in the dean’s office, the dean for commonwwealth campuses. And several of us applied for that associate dean position. And I got the thing for some reason.
But anyway, that put me in touch with all of the commonwealth campuses. And I had a chance to look at the racial situation as well as the overall academic things. And I had many things, many things going on that.
After three years on that, I think I was kind of worn out from all this travel around and decided to stay at one campus. And the one I had seen out of all of this travel was the Capitol campus. They had at that time upper division engineering work and a Master’s degree in that. So I said that sounds like a good place to be. So I came on here.
Now the only problem with Capitol is its location. It’s kind of, kind of out from everything. But--for younger students--but for adults, they can come here for their classes on the way to or from work. And it’s quite convenient. But for after-school activities, it’s still a little bit out of the way for the younger people.
You should also talk about what it’s like with the students. Or how were your students here with their first and only black professor they ever had?
Oh, I meet many, many students. Many of the white students who you have that reverse experience, they had not dealt with blacks in an educational situation before. And they figured that I was--I might be carrying some kind of a stick just to trounce them with. But they soon found out that that’s never been my ambition in life. And I became one of the very popular professors on campus here. That sounds strange--a popular engineering professor. We were always supposed to have that hard core exterior, you know. But I, I found that you can be tough appearing but still have a heart for the things that really help students to get where they want to go. And so that’s what I always tried to do as a teacher. You can’t be somebody who can be run over. That’s what I mean by being tough, but being tough not that you’re going to be unswerving for students and over demanding, but to say here’s what we, here’s what we want. And if you do it, you’ll get the most out of this. And that’s the way we’ll go on. And students go on with that very nicely. Very few fight it. And those who fight it are those who just like a fight on anything.
My only regret is that we didn’t get more black students in the curriculum here. But I shouldn’t have been surprised with that in the commonwealth campuses, campuses for the earlier years. There were very few black students. And we’re still, still trying to get the word out. There is such a thing as engineering. And the electrical is a very popular one among students, even among black students in certain places. And--but I guess the word was out that electrical is the tough one. It has lots of mathematics in it. But everything is conquerable if you put your mind to it.
So if you get past that, then you can get the students in. And once they get in and get used to each other, they find out there is a way to study for engineering and succeed at it. But there are some things that you might have to give up. And I think that’s where we lose a whole flock of people, not that they couldn’t do the work, but they don’t want to have to give up something that they like in order to get this done. But that’s, that’s a story of life.
Electrical engineering at Capitol campus
Here on the Harrisburg campus, what do you consider your major achievements?
Here at Capitol?
You know, I hadn’t really thought about this before, but I think just being here. Many people don’t, don’t care for this level of teaching.
I think that here at Capitol, the problem was not with my personality necessarily but that students come here for a particular subject. And that’s it. You don’t get much across-the-line interest. And electrical was not as popular here as at the two-year campuses. So we had that little drawback. But I enjoyed working with whatever students were brave enough to come forward and to try it out.
What did you value the most about your IEEE membership?
Oh my. Number one, the camaraderie, where you could sit down and being doing just normal fellowship. But this is a very special fellowship. So you’re right in your subject area anyway. So you just continue on from there. As a matter of fact, I always had to make sure that when I was in a setting of engineers that save some time somewhere for those topics of general life and experience. And engineers, of course, do have quite full lives. They don’t talk about them much. But we found out, oh, you like travel? Oh, so do I. And then you get off on something else. Otherwise, we’re talking about circuits all day long and enjoying it. But we had--we learned to broaden our discussions and help with that. I think, back to another question, you know, what they lacked here--I guess at most places I guess I was the only electrical instruction in the--I was going to say electrical area. I was the only black instructor in the technical area at that time. And that, that just speaks to the situation in the country as a whole. When you mention electrical engineering, people begin seeing calculus equations or expressions and some complex algebra forms. And they say, okay, enough for me. I’m going back to the arithmetic. But it’s like anything else. You get into it. You see what the progressions are. And you just go up the line learning these things and doing what you need to do to get the job done.
Maybe someday, after we’ve passed through this progression of increased senses, maybe this will be the place where people come for electrical. And this will be the heaviest enrolled area on the campus. It could happen.
Well, thank you very, very much for a fascinating interview.
Anything else that comes to mind that you want to discuss?
There’s so many things of a general nature. I guess I just should say--and I very seldom get a chance to talk about this other thing--I guess it used to be my, my general theme if I were talking to a group of unattached engineers, not attached to any organization, and had something to say to them. If you want to get into a situation where you learn more things about your particular profession and more about the people with whom you work in a larger sense, this is the organization. And you won’t be bored as the subject changes rapidly. And you learn a lot from it. And I have never strayed from it. And I am appreciative that IEEE keeps up with me as I have kept up with them over the years. Thank you.
The first time was when IEEE bought or built--I can’t remember which, which they did. They bought the building on East 47th Street in New York City.
Yes. That was the early 1960s.
That was, that was the first, the first big thing that I pledged money to. And boy, did I feel proud helping my professional organization. And then the move to Piscataway, we did some more. That was great. And then to see the organization expanding and the service to the world, I said, oh, this is, this is magnificent.
What was the first year you joined the AIEE, Joe?
Let me see.
He said he didn’t join as a student.
Well, I might have been, I might’ve been an interested student. But I don’t think I joined. No. As a matter of fact, I waited until I came to, came to Washington.
And that was in--the paperwork was actually 1949. It was the first major thing I did in Washington after I got there and got settled down in the job. In the spring of ’49, I said, okay, get these papers off to IEEE/AIEE. Yes. Oh boy, I felt so good about that.
Did you ever see the original AIEE headquarters up in New York?
You know, I only saw that building from afar. I don’t think I ever went into it.
I don’t know where, where I thought IEEE or AIEE was before that. But East 47th is the only address that I ever had for them.
- 1 About Joseph Douglas
- 2 About the Interview
- 3 Copyright Statement
- 4 Interview
- 4.1 Childhood education
- 4.2 High school
- 4.3 Purdue
- 4.4 Air Force, Tuskegee Airmen
- 4.5 Post-war studies at Purdue
- 4.6 Mathematics courses at Purdue
- 4.7 Graduation and employment search; employment discrimination
- 4.8 Rural Electrification Administration
- 4.9 REA fieldwork in North Dakota
- 4.10 AIEE and IEEE
- 4.11 Latimer Project
- 4.12 Teaching after-school engineering and mathematics programs
- 4.13 Southern University
- 4.14 Graduate studies, U. of Missouri
- 4.15 York, Pennsylvania
- 4.16 Penn State University
- 4.17 IEEE