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Purdue celebrates first African American civil engineering graduate

David Robert Lewis
David Robert Lewis
Richard Lewis was one of the signers of a petition to allow "colored" children to attend public school in Greensburg, Indiana. Could he possibly have envisioned that he would have a son who would someday become Purdue University's first African American graduate?

The Lyles School of Civil Engineering and the College of Engineering hosted a special event on Tuesday, February 26th to celebrate the legacy and significance of David Robert Lewis (BSCE 1894), Purdue University's first black graduate. The event included a lecture by Dr. Mamon Powers, Jr. as well as a luncheon showcasing the historical perspective of African Americans in engineering at Purdue and the rededication of the National Society of Black Engineers Key.

Videos of the lecture and luncheon program can be viewed at The First Step: Honoring David Robert Lewis, Purdue's first black graduate.


Richard Lewis was one of the signers of a petition to allow "colored" children to attend public school in Greensburg, Indiana. Could he possibly have envisioned that he would have a son who would someday become Purdue University's first African American civil engineering graduate?

David Robert Lewis was born November 29, 1861, to Richard and Jennie Thompson Lewis. David, his two brothers and three sisters were raised in Greensburg, Indiana, in Decatur County. David, who was later known as D. Robert, was the second son of the family; although the Greensburg petition was signed before his birth, he went on to become the first black student to graduate from Greensburg High School. We do not know what path his life took following high school, but we do know that it eventually led to Purdue University, where he registered in 1886 at the age of 25. Sadly, his father did not live to see this day, but we can be sure his efforts played an important part in the shaping of his son's future.

While attending Purdue, D. Robert Lewis participated in the Carlyle Society. Carlyle was one of five literary organizations at Purdue during the 1880’s and 90’s. These organizations presented entertainment to the public endeavoring to show what they had accomplished in literary training within their society. They would present a program consisting of declamations, orations, poems, and music with each group trying to outdo the other in presentation, stage sets, and costumes. The clubs were important to the social life on campus and sponsored yearly functions which were eagerly awaited by the students. Carlyle Society was formed when certain members of the Irving Society, Purdue’s first literary society, desired more social functions, and consequently, broke off on their own. The Story of Purdue's Traditions, published in 1944, states that the Carlyles must have been the "joes," or in today's lingo, the "in" group. They hosted many picnics and banquets. Their favorite forms of entertainment were mock trials. These fellows were the first to raise the idea of a college newspaper, and their plans eventually materialized into The Exponent, which remains Purdue’s newspaper today.

We know little else of Lewis's activities while enrolled at Purdue. During his senior year, he was one of only 57 students enrolled in the civil engineering program. We know that, at least during his last year, he resided just across the river on Ferry Street in Lafayette.

D. R. Lewis's thesis, written in 1894 as a partial fulfillment of his degree, can be found on file at Purdue University. It is entitled "Highway Road Construction." In his writing Lewis stated: "From a moral point of view the construction and maintenance of roads [that are] passable during the most inclement season of the year, when little is doing on the farm, [would make] easily accessible the schools, churches and villages, thereby promoting the social and intellectual intercourse of the people[.] [W]ith the free delivery of mails which will surely follow, home on the farm will cease to maintain its bugbear character which it now assumes, but will blossom out into happy firesides of brightness and cheer where the news of the world's doing comes promptly and regularly. This anchoring [of] the affections to the farm to become nature's first noblemen, will serve to counteract and turn in an opposite direction the tendency of the past decade to concentrate the rural population into the cities—a social problem the people are now grappling with."

In the body of his thesis, he compared various road construction methods based on location and availability of materials. He researched the underlying grade and rock formations throughout all Indiana counties and recommended various types of road construction. All methods involved covering roads with crushed stone in one manner or another. In the final section of his paper, he presents cost comparisons for construction and maintenance of both gravel and stone roads using France, a country possessing the finest roads in the world, as a basis of comparison.

Upon his graduation from Purdue in 1894 with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, D. R. Lewis accepted a teaching position in the manual training department of the Armstrong and Slater Memorial Trade School at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He began teaching in July 1894 and held the position of mechanical drawing instructor until October 1906.

From 1894 to 1906, D.R. Lewis held the position of mechanical drawing instructor at the Armstrong & Slater Memorial Trade School at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.
From 1894 to 1906, D.R. Lewis held the position of mechanical drawing instructor at the Armstrong & Slater Memorial Trade School at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.

While serving at the Hampton Institute, Lewis spoke of class activities in letters written to the principal of the school. He mentioned the carpenters working on building designs, the machine boys building a miniature engine, and the wheelwright working out a draft for a phaeton (four-wheeled carriage) he hoped to construct —a feat never before attempted. In another letter, he discussed at length the steam plant at Hampton. He spoke of the extended system of steam heating and steam power and recommended improvements in its power and efficiency. In light of a new building being built on campus, he suggested the making of a  topographical map of the campus for reference by water, sewage, and steam plant personnel.

D. R. Lewis's mother lived to see him graduate and become established in his first profession before she passed away in 1899. She must have been very proud, knowing that only nine African-Americans graduated from Indiana colleges between the time of the Civil War and 1900.

In 1929, D. R. Lewis wrote to The Purdue Alumnus magazine on the occasion of his graduating class's 35th reunion. He stated that he had taught at Hampton Institute for 12 years and became engaged in the real estate business in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1907. He mentioned that he was currently Chairman of the School Visitors Committee of his ward. He was married but had no children. He conveyed his best wishes for a successful reunion and suggested that the class might start a scholarship fund.

Later that same year, on December 17, David Robert Lewis passed away, climaxing a career as one of Pittsburgh's most useful citizens. Headlines in The Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed, "Prominent Realtor Called by Death." The article went on to say that Mr. Lewis had taken an active part in the civic and political affairs of the city, having been on the School Board of Visitors for 8 years, a member and president of the Third Ward Voter's League since its inception, one of the city's leading real estate brokers for 19 years and a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the Boule. He was survived by his devoted wife Marion, two of his sisters, and two of his brothers.

Richard and Jennie Lewis would indeed have been quite proud to see the ultimate result of a simple petition to the Greensburg School Board back in the 1850's.

Biography compiled by Roberta Ruch