George Washington Owens looked around at his classmates and realized he was the only black student in his class. He was determined to be the first black student to graduate.
“I found to my surprise that I was the only colored student enrolled in the college, and they had never had a colored graduate,” he later wrote in an autobiography. “So, I resolved to be the first.”
Not only did he become Kansas State University’s first black student to graduate, but he also graduated with distinction in 1899 and took just three-and-a-quarter years to earn his degree. Two years later Minnie Howell Champe earned the distinction of becoming the university’s first black female graduate.
During Kansas State University’s 150th anniversary this year, the university is celebrating diversity and honoring Owens and Champe, both of whom went on to become influential educators.
“Since Kansas State University was founded in 1863, the university has been open to any student who met entry requirements,” said Pat Patton, research specialist at the university archives. “Minnie and George set examples and are an inspiration to this day for all students.”
University archives staff members have researched the lives of Owens and Champe, delving into records and interviewing family members. Tony Crawford, curator of manuscripts, researched Owens, while Patton helped uncover the story of Champe in 2001. Champe’s graduating class could not afford a class book, so little was known about her until that time.
“These two students paved the way for future students and demonstrated how an education can change lives,” Patton said.
Born near Alma, Owens was the son of ex-slaves from Tennessee. His father was given land in Wabaunsee County to start a farm, where Owens often worked. During his college years, Owens worked on the university farm, in the dairy and as a janitor.
He graduated in 1899 with a bachelor’s degree in general science and became the director of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. There, he was in charge of the dairy herd and worked with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
In 1908, Owens helped establish the agriculture department at Virginia State University. He served as the head of the agriculture department until 1927. A building at Virginia State University later was named in his honor.
Owens “was progressive, not boastful, loved his work and made untold sacrifices to promote its progress,” a colleague wrote. “He never discussed people but advanced ideas.”
Champe, meanwhile, was born in Tennessee and was the oldest of nine children, moving with her family to Manhattan in 1886. She was the first in her immediate family to attend college and the only one to graduate. On campus Champe was involved in the Ionian literary society, editing the club’s newsletter.
Champe earned a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University in domestic science. Although her father died of typhoid fever her sophomore year of college, she continued her education.
“The more I learned about her, the more I found just how much determination and inner strength she had,” Patton said. “Not many women undertook college at that time, but Minnie was courageous. ”