The First Chemical Engineering Graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology Was a Black Man

Several years ago, when the chemical engineering program at the Illinois Institute of Technology was celebrating its centennial, it searched its records to identify the first graduate of the program. It came as a major surprise that its first graduate — Charles Warner Pierce — was a black man. He is believed to be the first African American to have earned a college degree in chemical engineering. The school has now named its award for distinguished alumni in Pierce’s honor.

Pierce was born in La Grange, Georgia, in 1876 but spent most of his younger years in Texas. He and his twin brother were the youngest of 14 children. At age 17 the twins moved to Chicago because the educational opportunities for young black men in Texas were almost nonexistent. Since he had no high school education, Pierce enrolled in the preparatory school of what was then known as the Armour Institute of Technology. He completed his high school education in one year and enrolled as a college student in 1897 and completed his degree in chemical engineering in 1901. In the 1901 yearbook Pierce is quoted as saying, “Mislike me not for my complexion.”

Pierce joined the faculty at Tuskegee University in Alabama and later chaired the department of chemical engineering at North Carolina A&T State University. He returned to Chicago in 1910, but at that time there were no opportunities there for a black man to teach at the college level. As a result, he spent the remainder of his career as a high school teacher.

Pierce retired from teaching in 1941 at the age of 65. He died six years later in 1947 from heart disease.