Binghamton University engineering Professor Victor Skormin has been roundly condemned by his campus community after his quip to the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers didn’t go over too well.That reminded me of a column by Milwaukee Journal (the Sentinel being a separate morning paper in those days) columnist Edward H. Blackwell that Trains reprinted in its January 1971 issue. The writing is old enough that the Journal-Sentinel have no current archive of it, although it's available on the Trains CD of their first 75 years.
It all started when the NSBE club recently sent out a mass email about their planned fundraiser at a local steakhouse. Professor Skormin replied back to all, saying: “Please let me know about a dinner of the National Society of White Engineers. Thank you.”
Mr Blackwell was the son of a Pullman porter, and sometimes an engineer colleague would take along an unauthorized rider. "When I went to school one day, I suddenly found myself 'in.' A schoolmate had seen me riding a locomotive." In the late Twenties or early Depression years of this recollection, that was a very big thing. But locker room talk could be cruel.
I was in the boys' locker room telling all who would listen about my ride from St. Paul. The grade between St. Paul and Minneapolis is steep, and on this ride we couldn't make it and had to wait for a helper engine.Mr Blackwell served in the Merchant Marine in the War, worked his way through college as a dining car waiter, and began writing for the Journal in 1963.
As I was telling my tale of how the engine was slipping and finally had to give up when we ran out of sand used on the rails for traction, the tale was getting mixed up with my fantasy of becoming a locomotive engineer. A white student snapped my fantasy:
"Don't you know there aren't any n****r engineers?"
The National Society of Black Engineers started in 1975, and current members suggest there is still work to be done, getting young people the STEM chops.
Siaki Tetteh-Nartey, a student member of Binghamton’s National Society of Black Engineers, told WBNG.com that she doesn’t want to see Skormin fired, since it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind about the issues at hand. Instead, she said she wants a “dialogue about why these [diversity-based] groups are still relevant in this day and age, in addition to what they do.”A joke gone awry might be the simplest explanation of the continued social value of such societies. Perhaps their continued presence in another twenty or fifty years might illustrate something else gone wrong.
She added, “We cannot expect people to learn from their misstep if we do not sit down with them.”