Department(s):The Business School
In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to introduce you to Naudin Oswell, the first African American graduate of WPI. Oswell entered WPI in the year 1919. He came to study mechanical engineering and later found electrical engineering was more of his forte. “Osie” and “Dutchie,” nicknames attributed to him during his time at WPI, participated in three sports: football, soccer, and track. Other than these few anecdotes, little is known about Oswell. We know that he was recommended for an internship by the head of the Electrical Engineering department. Oswell did not get the internship. The company objected “to hiring colored men in this department.” We also know that Oswell did not graduate with his class as would have been expected. He graduated in 1930. The historical record provides no clues as to what was happening in his life. We do not know why Oswell left school or how it was that he came back. We don't know much about his life postgraduation either. Years later, through war records and brief news articles, we find Oswell in New York working for the New York City Housing Authority. Was it his engineering degree that helped him assume this work? Again, we do not know. Oswell became the first treasurer of the first black owned investment brokerage firm on Wall Street. Later, serving as the manager of the South Jamaica Houses, Oswell was credited as being the first individual to integrate a housing project in the United States.
These scarce details about one who was such a pioneer for WPI sadden me. I understand that it's not possible to keep track of every individual who comes to our institute. I know it's not possible to keep track of all the details of their lives post-graduation. Even today in our data rich, digital era, we do not have the resources to chronicle everyone’s life. Instead, we get snippets if we are lucky; an update here or a post there that someone might happen to see. However, I find myself wanting more.
I want more details about the lives of our pioneers because I remember the challenge of being the only African American in my management, manufacturing engineering, and computer science classes at WPI decades later. I want more because such knowledge is important for those who follow in our footsteps. For example, I remember the African American woman who rushed to congratulate me after I earned my Master's in Engineering degree at WPI saying, “I know you don't know me, but I had to congratulate the only person who crossed the stage today who looked like me.”
It is hard to be what you cannot see. It is hard for those who aspire to roles where they are the first. It is also hard for others to see as well because unconscious bias can impact our ability to see historically minoritized persons outside of the boxes that a society creates for them. The United States, for example, has never had a female president because it's hard for some to see a woman in such a role. But as we continue to recognize and champion the gifts and abilities of others, our ability to see them beyond narrow confines expands.
I don't know much about you, Naudin Oswell, but I stand on your shoulders. You were more than the three-star athlete and jovial fellow with winsome nicknames in the 1924 yearbook. You took your WPI degree and leveraged it for more than the discipline in which you were trained. We like to believe that WPI teaches our students to think critically, leveraging those skills to make a difference in the world. And the little that we know about your life attests to that fact. You were, among other things, a manager, an advocate, and a trailblazer. But I also know that your path was not easy because you were the only one. Yet you persevered and if we do the same, we will be able to celebrate WPI graduates like you who go on to be more. Not only is this black history, but it is also our history.