Inside Purdue Engineering: Purdue NSBE

The roots of the National Society of Black Engineers are in West Lafayette at Purdue University.

Doubts weren’t just creeping in to Virginia Booth's mind anymore, they were all-consuming.

She’d studied, hard, for that thermodynamics exam. All that produced was a failing grade, and not even one remotely close to passing, only a 21 percent.

Flip the digits and still wouldn’t matter, she thought.

Why was she even here, trying to finish a bachelor’s degree nearly 10 years after she’d started? Mostly because Purdue University told her she’d lose all her credits if she didn’t re-enroll now? Just because she only needed five courses to complete an industrial engineering degree?

But those final classes included ones that “try men’s souls,” thermodynamics, a circuit analysis course and Electricity and Optics, the ones that were the hardest when she was initially a student on campus in the mid-1970s.

Virginia Booth Womack
Virginia Booth (standing middle) and Marion Blalock (on phone) were integral pieces to Purdue's chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers in the mid-1970s.  

Why did she think she could figure it out now, what she couldn’t then? Just because she’d decided there would be no splitting focus by getting pulled in to student organizations like before? Then, those commitments overwhelmed her, to the point that she was in this position, sitting at a table alone in the Purdue Memorial Union in the late 1980s, without a degree.

“I was really mentally breaking down,” she said.

Booth's spiraling thoughts were interrupted when a student walked over. He’d recognized her from thermo class, asked how she was doing in the course. Not well, she admitted, may have to drop the class.

“Well, we have an organization called the National Society of Black Engineers, and we have study tables,” he said. “Have you heard of it? It’s called NSBE. You should come to our meetings.”

Has she heard of it?

She was there, in the early days, before there even was a Purdue chapter of NSBE. She worked alongside the celebrated “Chicago Six.” She attended the first national conference. She served two terms as the national chair of the organization.

“No,” she said instead, “no, I haven’t.”

Booth wasn’t going to get “sucked in to any organization” this time. Especially the one she had been so dedicated to years ago. The one that had her traveling all over the country, working extra hours in the Purdue NSBE office in Potter. The one that she was focused on planting seeds, getting that national organization off the ground.

The one she ultimately chose instead of class, opting to skip and leading her to flunk out. She distanced herself from the university after that. Until the notification from Purdue that she had a limited amount of time left to finish the degree she’d started so many years ago.

So she came back to campus and quickly learned NSBE had developed into everything all the initial pioneers had hoped it could. All the reasons she'd initially gravitated toward the Black Society of Engineers, which later became the Society of Black Engineers, which later became the “mother chapter” of the National Society of Black Engineers, were still there. The insistence on helping others succeed. The resources to do it. The community behind it all, people who truly cared about that success. 

Soon after that chance meeting in the Union, Booth walked into a NSBE meeting, a 30-something-year-old looking for help. She was paired with a tutor who knew how to speak to her where she was at — knew when she was lying when she said she understood a concept and made her do a problem again. That semester, she finished thermo with a “C,” “the best C I ever saw in my life,” she said. In Electricity and Optics, she earned a “B.”

“I couldn’t have survived had there not been a NSBE,” Booth Womack said now. “Leaving and coming back in the organization was my pathway to success. That’s how NSBE changed my life. It became the vehicle for people like me to come to a university and find a way to be successful, even when the odds are stacked against you. I never forgot that.

“NSBE’s mission, everybody knows it by heart, is ‘to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers that excel academically, succeed professionally’ — and this is the most important thing — ‘and positively impact the community.’ Every NSBE (member) knows that. It’s all about community building. I believe in that mission. I believe it’s as relevant today as it was back in the 70s.”

And was it ever relevant then.

Planting seeds

Fred Cooper enjoyed the study groups he’d formed with Ed Barnette and another dozen or so Black engineering students at Purdue in the early 1970s. They were life, really, helping the group navigate a challenging academic landscape. That rigorous nature had produced results they hated to see: Black students were dropping out at a high rate.

Ten would come in and there may be two left by the end of the year, partly because of academics, partly because they didn’t feel like they had a support system.

To try to combat that attrition, Cooper and Barnette wanted their group to become recognized on campus as an accredited organization, one that would primarily focus on retention of minority engineering students, though recruiting more minorities into the program would be a push as well.

They scheduled a meeting with Dean of Engineering John C. Hancock to move forward with that goal, but it didn’t go as they’d hoped.

Ed Barnette was Black Society of Engineers first president
Ed Barnette was the first president of the Black Society of Engineers at Purdue. 

“He gave us a dose of reality,” Cooper told Purdue University’s Archives and Special Collections in 2018. “He said ‘no.’ He said we needed to do more to be a fully recognized organization on campus. He wanted us to develop a charter. He wanted us to elect officers. He also wanted us to meet for three or four months to make sure that we really had a viable group. So we went back and we did all of that.”

Barnette was chosen as the president of group. Arthur Bond, an engineering PhD student, was assigned as mentor. They met regularly to study and encourage each other, reinforcing a message that “it’s OK to ask for help,” Cooper said.

It took at least two more trips back to Hancock before he allowed the group access to university resources and to be recognized as an organization, Cooper said. According to some records, the first meeting for the Black Society of Engineers (BSE) was Oct. 11, 1971.

“It gave me a sense of purpose,” said Cooper, the second president of the group. “The Black Society of Engineers just gave me more drive, too. … You had a lot of minorities in a mostly white college, so it wasn’t just academics. It was assimilating and getting acclimated to college life.”

The timing was ideal.

Earlier that year, in the Fall of 1971, Purdue Engineering welcomed its largest incoming class of Black students to date, as 25 came to West Lafayette to study engineering, said Anthony Harris, among that historic group.

Harris and a group of engineering friends who’d come to Purdue from the Chicago area gravitated toward BSE. Years later, when BSE’s president didn’t finish his term, Harris stepped into the role in 1974. Harris already was involved in the Purdue chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and had been to national conventions for that organization. He started to wonder, what if BSE had a national organization? How would it work? How would it fit?

Conversations between Harris and his core group of friends from Chicago — Ed Coleman, Brian Harris, Stanley Kirtley, John Logan and George Smith — started to heat up about what next steps could be for the group.

“When you begin to talk about a future that is compelling and how people can fit in to making that happen, people get excited about it,” Anthony Harris told Purdue Archives and Special Collections in 2018. “I took the ASME structure and said, ‘Well, it could look like this. One day, we could have a national office and a national presence,’ and everybody (said), ‘Yeah, we could.’ And it’d just kind of built on itself.”

BSE held a job fair and banquet in February 1975 and welcomed back Barnette, who’d graduated in 1972. Purdue President Arthur G. Hansen, the keynote speaker at the banquet, heard a ballroom full of Black students talking about what was possible after Purdue and how having an engineering degree shifted their reality.

Students at a table
The early influencers for what became NSBE.

“It was the beginning of ‘this makes sense, this feels good, I’m somebody,’” Booth Womack said. “Engineering became property for me. Engineering gave me respect. Because I was an engineering student at Purdue, whatever someone wanted to think about me, they had to drop it.

“To have a Purdue degree makes you cocky because you know it carries weight. That gave me something that I didn’t know a university could give me – a sense of confidence, a foundation I could stand on that was bigger than me and bigger than the racial issues people were struggling with.”

When Hansen got up to speak to the group, he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if this was happening all over the country?”

After his talk, Anthony Harris told Hansen that was the plan — to make Black Society of Engineers a national organization. Hansen was in favor and directed Harris and the group to the appropriate connections within Purdue.

Soon after, Harris followed by sending letters to presidents and deans of every accredited engineering program in the country — nearly 300— asking them to identify student leaders, organizations and faculty members who might support efforts to increase the number of African-Americans in programs. Harris invited them to Purdue University for a meeting that would seek to establish a national organization of a Society of Black Engineers, a name tweak Harris had suggested.

About 100 responded and, ultimately, about 80 students from 40 universities visited West Lafayette in April 1975. Students came from across the country, not only from the Midwest but from California and Canada. The agenda included five components: Agree on a name, symbol, charter, national headquarters and a national chair. At the end of the meeting, all but the charter had been decided: The National Society of Black Engineers would be headquartered at Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus and a Purdue student, Jason Cason, was elected as the first national chair.

“At the end, everybody just stood up and applauded,” Anthony Harris said. “It was great. We knew something special had just happened. We were hugging and high-fiving. We could kind of see what the future was going to be for this organization.”

The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) was incorporated in 1976 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Founding chapter of NSBE
The 'mother chapter' of NSBE was founded at Purdue in 1975.  

In the middle of it all was a female industrial engineering student, caught up in the moment, in the movement, in the weight of student voices urging to be heard.

“It was one of those periods where the urgency of now became sort of a charge,” Booth Womack said.

Purdue wasn’t the only university that recognized the importance of cultivating a group to support Black engineering students in the 1970s, but the Chicago Six’s work toward generating that collective effort in the form of a national society has garnered them credit as founders of NSBE.

But Bond was crucial in the inception and early growth of NSBE, and Marion Blalock was a champion for minority engineering students, initially as the assistant dean of students and then as an advisor for NSBE.

Booth Womack laid much groundwork early, too. At the second national conference in Pomona, California, she ran for national chair but lost.

In 1978, encouraged and endorsed by the Purdue president, Hansen, she ran again and won. The organization was given an office in the A.A. Potter Engineering Center, and Booth Womack focused on establishing a chartering process for new chapters. During her time as national chair, NSBE chartered nearly 80 chapters, she said. She served as president in 1978-79 and was re-elected for a second term.

Finding family

By the time Brandon Pitts enrolled at Louisiana State University in 2007, the national society was strong. His interest in the organization was piqued when he realized the community that had been established. Not only would NSBE provide a like-minded group of students that he could study and share life with, it also would help connect with mentors and expand his network, help him find internships and a job.

Now, as an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue, Pitts has seen NSBE to continue to meet his needs, even though they’ve evolved.

NSBE members with Grand Prix car
The current Purdue NSBE chapter has about 200 active, paying members.

When Pitts started as a professor in 2017, he attended NSBE’s Academic Research Leadership Symposium. The event was for targeted for young professors and postdocs as an avenue for them to share research, meet collaborators and even speak with project sponsors.

“Joining the organization as an undergrad, you think there is a ceiling. You think, ‘OK, this is going to suit my needs as an undergrad.’ I was very surprised that as I grew and changed, NSBE was still able to suit my needs at whatever point in my career I was at,” Pitts said.

Knowing Purdue is NSBE’s “mother chapter” played a factor into Pitts coming to Purdue — “they must have been visionary and bold,” he said about the students who laid the foundation for it on campus in the 1970s — and he encourages his students to join the organization, for all the reasons he did.

“I could imagine, even before stepping on campus, what kind of the energy was here, and I wanted to be part of that,” he said. “I’m proud of this national student-run organization having its foundation here. Who doesn’t want to be part of something like that?”

Kyndall Davis absolutely did.

As a senior in high school when Davis was searching for colleges, she did a Google search for “Black engineers.” The first thing that popped up was NSBE. She didn’t realize until she enrolled at Purdue and attended a preview weekend hosted by the Minority Engineering Program that NSBE’s roots were at Purdue.

It’s what Purdue chapter officers said then that had her hooked.

“They were talking about how NSBE brought them together as a family and how it was like a home away from home on Purdue’s campus. Their experiences really showed me some of the things I was looking for going into college,” Davis said. "It was just like a second home."

That environment has been confirmed in her now nearly four years as part of the organization, and now, as chapter president, it’s one she fosters.

Kyndall Davis surrounded by other NSBE members
Purdue NSBE, led by President Kyndall Davis, has biweekly meetings.

The Purdue NSBE chapter has about 200 paying, active members, and encourages all of them to be involved in its seven active programs. Each program — from competitions, mentorship, NSBE4Change and pre-collegiate — is designed to strengthen members academically and professionally, providing community outreach opportunities and valuable leadership experiences. Purdue’s chapter hosts weekly information sessions with companies and regularly volunteers at the Hanna Center to participate in STEM-related activities with first-seventh graders.

“One of the main aspects that I think it’s impacted is the amount of connections I’ve been able to make and the opportunities I’ve secured through the people I've met,” said Davis, who accounts for one of the more than 24,000 active members at one of the more than 600 chapters in the national organization. “I’ve been able to go to multiple conferences and get in touch with industry professionals, which really opened the doors to many different internship opportunities.

“At every step, NSBE has helped me accomplish my goals.”

Even beyond what the Black engineering pioneers at Purdue dreamed.

When Booth Womack was reintroduced to Purdue’s NSBE chapter on that return to campus in the late 1980s, she opted to attend the national conference. She hadn’t been to one since she was national chair. The conference was in Boston, and there were nearly 9,000 students in attendance.

“I broke down,” said Booth Womack, the current Purdue NSBE advisor and director of Purdue’s Minority Engineering Program. “All of a sudden, I understood — somebody has to lay foundations. It may seem like failure to you at the time. But you have to wait it out and see what it becomes. That seed wasn’t my seed, but it was a seed I helped water. It’s still alive today, all over the nation and all over the world.”