The "Chicago Six"

In 1971, two Purdue undergraduate students, Edward Barnette (now deceased) and Fred Cooper, approached the Dean of Engineering at Purdue University with the concept of starting the Black Society of Engineers (BSE). They wanted to establish a student organization to help improve the recruitment and retention of black engineering students. In the late 1960’s, a devastating 80 percent of the black freshmen entering the engineering program dropped out after the first year. The Dean agreed to the idea and assigned the only black faculty member on staff, Arthur J. Bond, as advisor. 

Ed Barnett served as the first president of the BSE. The BSE met at what was then called the “Black House,” now known as the Black Cultural Center at Purdue. Engineering students were expected to meet in the library daily to complete their homework and/or prepare for exams together. No one stood alone and everyone looked out for each other. The Society became the strongest and most cohesive academic group on campus for black engineering students. Ed Barnett and Fred Cooper graduated and became corporate supporters of the students at Purdue. The activities of the members of the Black Society of Engineers resulted in increased retention and enrollment. In 1974, with the direction and encouragement of their advisor, Arthur J. Bond, a leader within the group, Anthony Harris, led the initiative to explore the opportunity to make what was happening at Purdue a national standard. Under the leadership of Harris, the organization’s name changed from the Black Society of Engineers to the Society of Black Engineers.

Several engineering universities had similar groups on their campuses and Anthony Harris, along with five friends from Chicago, now known as the “Chicago Six” challenged Purdue’s membership to rise to the challenge of hosting this very important meeting and realizing a common goal to impact the nation. Anthony Harris, president of the Purdue chapter, wrote a letter to the Presidents and Deans of every accredited engineering program in the country (288), explained the Society of Black Engineers (SBE) concept, shared the retention successes experienced at Purdue, and asked them to identify black student leaders, organizations, and faculty members who might be interested in attending a meeting at Purdue to support the effort of creating a national presence. The President of Purdue University at the time, Dr. Arthur G. Hansen, encouraged the initiative and became a key enabler during the formative stages of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). 

Approximately 80 schools responded. Many had similar black student organizations with similar objectives. A date was set for the first national meeting and 48 students representing 32 schools attended. Students from all over the nation and Canada drove during dangerous times through many states and deep into the cornfields of West Lafayette, Indiana, to change the destiny of thousands. They risked personal safety and braved the challenge to pioneer a new venture that would impact the lives of African-American children who otherwise might not have an opportunity to pursue engineering.  

From April 10-12, 1975, the students from across the nation, and the engineering students at Purdue University, networked, bonded, and came to a conclusion that would affect the lives of thousands in years to come. All in attendance are credited with the birth of a new organization: The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The six engineering students from Purdue University that were key in bringing this event to fruition were: Anthony Harris, Brian Harris, Stanley L. Kirtley, John W. Logan, Jr., Edward A. Coleman, and George A. Smith. There were several engineering students on Purdue’s campus that helped facilitate the event. Their names are not mentioned here, however their impact was critical to the success of this effort.

It was at that historic meeting through majority vote, that The Society of Black Engineers became the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The NSBE logo was chosen and it remains a distinctively recognizable symbol representing the premier technical organization for African-American engineering students and professionals worldwide. The NSBE logo consists of a lit torch with the letters ‘S’ ‘B’ and ‘E’ in the handle of the torch. There are two lightning bolts crossing in the middle of the torch. Both are superimposed over the letter ‘N’ indicating national impact. The torch symbolizes lighting the way. The fire represents the members’ everlasting, burning desire to achieve success in a competitive society. The ‘N’ represents the national scope of positive affect in the quality of life for all people. The lightning bolts represent the striking impact (in all directions) that will be felt by the society and industry due to the contributions and accomplishments made by the dedicated members of NSBE.

NSBE was eventually incorporated in Texas, in 1976, as a 501©3 non-profit organization. John Cason, also from Purdue, served as the first elected president of NSBE. During the critical formative years, Virginia Booth Womack, with the endorsement and encouragement of Purdue’s President Arthur G. Hansen, became the first female National Chairperson, and the first to serve two terms 1978-1980. Under her leadership and mentorship by Dr. Arthur Hansen, Virginia and the 1978 NSBE Executive Board led the chartering process for new chapters. That year, the chartered membership for the organization grew exponentially making NSBE a recognized presence on predominately white campuses. The organization grew from a few chapters to more than 50 chapters in 1978. During her second term in office more chapters were added and a national agenda was framed.

NSBE has since grown from six to over 35,000 members within the United States and abroad. It has membership in countries all over the world, including Ghana, Nigeria, Canada, Germany, China, Jamaica, Trinidad, and others. NSBE World Headquarters is located in Alexandria, Virginia.

NSBE was born during an era where conditions for African-Americans were dismal.  Its genesis was after the death of great leaders, including President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. In the heart of the civil rights movement, the atmosphere at Purdue University provided a catalyst for bringing about change in the 1970’s. Today, the same university is determined to continue to IMPACT the world! To the Edward Barnett’s and Fred Coopers across the country that championed unity at their respective campuses, to the ‘Chicago Six’ who braved the nay-sayers and pressed the organization at Purdue to embrace and expand its borders, to the pioneers who braved the journey to come to Purdue to create a national body for positive change, many continue to express their thanks.

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