The Testimony of William Hunter Dammond: The First African American Graduate of the University of Pittsburgh*

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article examines the life and times of William Hunter Dammond (1873-1956). He distinguished himself as the first African American graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh) in June 1893. He was an educator, civil engineer and inventor with several important patents. The author's original research corrected a longstanding error in the official University of Pittsburgh history which up until that time listed John Coverdale Gilmer as the first African American graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh) with a bachelor of arts in 1897. However, William Hunter Dammond graduated four years earlier with honors, thus holding a degree in civil engineering in June 1893. The University of Pittsburgh official history now has been corrected and records William Hunter Dammond as the first African American graduate.

To pursue a passion furnishes the drive to carry a work-in-progress to completion. History however, shows recognition sometimes can be slow in coming.

Up until recent times few African American inventors received recognition, "when in fact, Blacks were giants who contributed tremendously to the world."[i] As late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century African Americans acquired the capacity to tinker purposefully, taking things apart and putting them together again, they picked up valuable mechanical skills adding to our nation's wealth.[ii] The first African American graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh), William Hunter Dammond (1873-1956), was an inventor with several "important patents in operation."[iii] The technological revolution of the nineteenth century initiated an era in which all people could not only realize the benefits of advancement but also make meaningful contributions.

Background

The early influences in the life of William Hunter Dammond provided a middle class background. William Hunter Dammond was born (1873) in Pittsburgh's lower Hill District, the fifth of eight children of Edward Dammond and Lucy Dorsey. After the Civil War Edward Dammond, a sailor, migrated from Louisiana and found employment as a waiter in Pittsburgh. When the African American masses were unskilled workers, Edward Dammond's "service occupation" and evidence of mixed ancestry afforded the family a middle-class standing in the African American community. Given the importance of the African American church in the evolution of cultural and intellectual life in African American urban communities, a former house servant, Lucy Dorsey, migrated from Winchester, Virginia, to Pittsburgh and affiliated with Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the oldest church of its denomination west of the Alleghenies. The selection of Bethel AME as a home church probably was due in part to its notable role in the early struggle for Black education. The dynamics of the Dammond family's social and religious life were typical of the African American middle class in late nineteenth-century America.[iv]

The recognition of academic promise within the Dammond family members allowed for unique educational opportunities. During the late nineteenth-century few African Americans in western Pennsylvania attended school beyond the age of fourteen, but Mamie Dammond, the oldest sister of William Hunter Dammond, was recognized as "a scholar of much attainment." She graduated from normal school and later worked as the "instructress in the literary branch" of the Avery Trade School in neighboring Allegheny City.[v]

When few African Americans attended preparatory schools, as was common throughout the nation during the late nineteenth-century, the 1889 Annual Register for the Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh) listed "William Hunter Dammond, 71 Arthur Street, Pittsburg [sic]," as being enrolled in the first class of English at Park Institute. (At the time a vibrant African American community existed on Fulton and Congress streets, and on Clark, Colwell, and Arthur streets in the lower Hill District. …