UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In honor of Black History Month at Penn State, we take a look at the University’s first known African-American alumnus and alumna — Calvin H. Waller, class of 1904, and Mildred Settle Bunton, class of 1932.
Calvin H. Waller
On a fine June day in 1905, a 25-year-old Macon, Georgia, student strode across the stage of Schwab Auditorium, accepted his baccalaureate degree, and made history — Calvin Hoffman Waller had become the first African-American student known to have graduated from Penn State.
Accounts of Waller’s commencement ceremony give no indication that anyone recognized, at least overtly, the significance of the occasion. In fact, Penn State did not even record the ethnicity of its students at that time, and thus “first known” must prefix Waller’s accomplishment, for it is possible — although highly unlikely — that other black students preceded him in earning degrees. His place in history relies on indirect evidence, such as the student yearbook and the memoirs of his contemporaries.
Waller had ambitions to pursue a career in agriculture, and Pennsylvania’s land-grant institution offered one of the nation’s premier programs in that area. The leading agricultural institutions in the South were effectively closed to him because of his race; Waller had attended three black agricultural schools before arriving in State College, Pennsylvania, in 1899.
He enrolled in Penn State’s preparatory course, equivalent to high school in a later era. He initially had an uphill battle with academics — evidence of the inferior quality of lower-level public education then available to people of color. Penn State’s President George Atherton observed of Waller, however, that “[He] is of such ability as leads me to have no doubt that he will be prepared for a successful career after he has completed our course.”
Waller was popular with his fellow students — the 1904 edition of La Vie, the student yearbook, called him “one of the trio which runs State,” and said “he is about as congenial a fellow as you may care to strike and is always ready to battle for the right.” An accomplished speaker, he could leave his fellow students spellbound with his orations, both in and out of class. At various times during his collegiate career he was associate editor of La Vie, a member of the natural history club, quarterback for the intramural football team, an accomplished vocalist and president of the Glee Club.
Upon graduation, Waller returned to Georgia and taught for two years at Lucy Laney’s Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. The charismatic Laney was a nationally prominent pioneer in the movement for more and better educational opportunities for black Americans, and undoubtedly she inspired Waller’s already growing determination to make a difference in society. In 1907, he accepted a position as an assistant professor of vegetable gardening at what would become Prairie View A&M University, Texas’ historically black land-grant institution. There he became a popular teacher and head football coach. In 1909 he married Georgia native Annie Walton, and they had a son, Calvin Walton Waller.
But it was among the black farmers of east Texas that Waller left his greatest professional imprint. He began traveling throughout the region, urging farmers to adopt production techniques based on science rather than superstition, and demonstrating the results of scientific research. He eventually joined the Texas state agricultural extension program, which, like the state’s colleges, was strictly segregated. In 1919 Waller was named “Head of Negro Extension Work” for Texas, a post he held for more than 20 years. Among his many achievements he convinced white political leaders in the various counties to accept black agricultural and home economics agents. When he became head, there were four full-time agents and 19 others who were employed seasonally, often for as little as four weeks a year. When he died in 1941, he was overseeing a staff of 85 men and women spread over 51 counties.
Mildred Settle Bunton
In 1932 Mildred Settle Bunton became Penn State's first black alumna, earning her bachelor of science degree in home economics (now health and human development).
Raised in poverty as the seventh of nine children, Bunton faced significant financial challenges but had a wealth of determination. The Uniontown native graduated from high school with top honors and began her studies at the University of New Orleans, making the dean's list while working as a babysitter. In 1929 she transferred to Penn State, where she was the first — and only — black co-ed on campus (by 1930, women comprised about 16 percent of the total undergraduate population).
She earned room and board by working for faculty, and paid her tuition through borrowing state funds and winning academic scholarships, two of which she received from the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women.
Bunton's name was consistently on the dean's list, and in 1932 she graduated with honors and the highest grades in the home economics department. She went on to earn her master's in nutrition at Cornell University in 1953.
Among her many career accomplishments, she served as director of dietetics at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., and was an associate professor at Howard University. She participated in numerous panels, committees and organizations, including the 1969 White House Conference on Nutrition, Food and Health; and served as subcommittee chairman on the District of Columbia's Mayor's Commission on Food, Nutrition and Health.
Bunton received many accolades for her life's work in advancing nutrition as a science and a profession. In 1973, Penn State named her a Distinguished Alumna, the highest honor the University bestows on its alumni.
The Penn State Bunton-Waller Awards
In 1994, Penn State established the Bunton-Waller awards, scholarships and fellowships named in honor of Waller and Bunton, which are made annually to students who have demonstrated academic potential and contribute to the ethnic, cultural or socio-economic diversity of the student body.