To sit and hear Costel Denson ’56 tell his Lehigh story is to take a walk through the history of race relations not only on South Mountain, but in the nation as a whole.
Denson is the man, after all, who became the first African-American to ever graduate from Lehigh. He arrived in 1951—12 years before Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington and brought the Civil Rights Movement into the nation’s consciousness—and so, as one might imagine, Denson’s time on campus was marked by more than mere academic challenge.
To put it simply, for four years here at Lehigh, Denson was alone.
Yes, he found family with the fencing team—a team that he would eventually captain—and he found family, too, in the African-American church in Bethlehem. He found mentors in the department of chemical engineering, and he found supporters in the university administration, too. But even with the support of a few, his time at Lehigh, inevitably, was never going to be easy. And it wasn’t.
But he never gave up. Even when he wanted to, he never gave up. He wouldn’t let himself.
Which is why he went on to earn his degree at Lehigh and his commission in the U.S. Army. It’s why he later would earn a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1960, and his doctorate from the University of Utah in 1965, both in chemical engineering, and it’s why he would go on to become one of the most respected minds in the world in the field of fluid mechanics. He enjoyed a long and successful career at GE, launched two companies based on technologies that he himself developed, and later returned to academia, serving as professor of chemical engineering, dean of engineering and Vice Provost for Research.
Notably, he also returned to Lehigh, during the 1968-69 academic year, to serve as a visiting professor in chemical engineering. That year, the university was home to 28 African- American students, and at the conclusion of his visiting tenure, Denson wrote a piece for this very publication, reflecting on his two stints at Lehigh and offering his thoughts on how Lehigh might better serve the African-American community and live up to its mission. It was titled, “A Minority of One.”
In mid-April, Denson returned to campus to meet with administrators, faculty and students. He was here to share his story, his perspectives and his words of wisdom with those who make up the Lehigh of today, and he was kind enough during his time here to sit down for a lengthy interview with the Bulletin. During an hour-long interview, Denson told what can only be termed a wholly unique and truly inspirational Lehigh story—one that offers a sobering look back at both America in the mid-20th century, and at one man’s difficult, lonely and inspirational journey.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in the Beaver Valley. It was steel country, a town called New Brighton. Everyone was hardworking, and it was a mixed community. We had black folks, Irish folks, Italian folks, Eastern Europeans. We all got along pretty well. Of course, it was sectionalized, but when it came to football, we all played together, and we all did very well. That was the binding element in the community—the football team.
What did your mother and father do for a living?
My mother was a housekeeper for a wealthy family, and my father was a millworker. Neither of them went to college, but my mother later went on to become a licensed practical nurse. She did that in the later stages of her life. But she also had great musical talent. She was the church organist for something like 30 years, and as her son, I had to sing in the church choir and behave. But I did have some good talent myself. I started playing when I was 5 or 6 and I studied music for about 12 years, and I was looking at a career in music. Remember, this was the 1940s, and what kind of jobs could you get back then if you were a black man? Well, one of them was to be a musician. So my junior year, I applied to Oberlin College, and was granted early admission, and I thought that was that. I was just studying hard and playing football.
So what changed?
But then during my junior year I took a chemistry course, and one of the teachers was one of the assistant football coaches. He was kind of a rough guy. One day we were sitting in class, and we were given an assignment that was supposed to take two or three hours. Well, I polished it off in about 30 minutes and then I was sitting there wondering what to do. I told the teacher, “Coach, I don’t have anything to do here.” So then he handed me this magazine. And I tell you, I read that magazine for the next two years. It was called Chemical Engineering. I just fell in love with it and said, “This is what I want to be.” Of course, everyone thought I was nuts.
How did you change their minds?
They said there was no way I was going to end up a chemical engineer. But I persisted. I ended up applying to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Lehigh, MIT and the Case Institute. Now, in high school, I was a big star football player and a good scholar. I graduated fifth in my class. I was president of the science club and all kinds of other stuff. So one day I’m sitting in class and I was instructed to go down to the principal’s office. Everyone froze, because of course, you only get called down to the principal’s office if you’re in trouble. I’m thinking, “What did I do?” When I entered the office, they handed me the phone, and I picked it up and the man’s name on the line was (former Lehigh vice president for advancement) Paul Franz Jr. He said to me, “I’m going to be in Pittsburgh tomorrow, and I’m wondering if you could meet me there.” Now, I didn’t know where I was going, but the next day I caught the bus and found the building he said he would be at. Out comes this man with these two elegant women—they were the Dravo sisters—and we all went into this other room. We talked for an hour. They were asking me all of these questions. And then I went back home. I had no idea what was going on—I just thought it was all strange.
But obviously, something was up. What happened next?
Ten days later, of course, I received this big thick letter from Lehigh saying, “We are granting you admission, and we’re giving you a Dravo scholarship.” I didn’t have to play sports or anything. They would cover my tuition, room and board, and I would get some spending money, too. They were only giving out ten of those scholarships, and I was getting one of them. Now, around the same time, I had been admitted to MIT, but I hadn’t received as good an aid package, and I told my parents that’s where I wanted to go. They said, “No you’re not. You’re going to Lehigh.”
What can you tell me about your first days here?
Eventually the day came for me to depart for Bethlehem. My father bought me a plane ticket for $17, and I boarded the plane and was just totally wacked out. I hadn’t ever been on a plane before. We landed in Easton and I grabbed a taxi to campus, and I eventually found where the admissions office was. I went down and obtained my key and then found my room and started unpacking. I was still scared to death. I had never seen anything like this campus in my life.
In those days, all of the freshmen had roommates, and there was a lot of activity that day as all of the students started moving in. So I’m waiting for my roommate, and nobody ever comes. After a couple of days, I go down to the Alumni Memorial Building to see the vice president of student affairs. I found him and said, “Sir, I’m a bit worried. My roommate hasn’t shown up yet, and I’m worried something may have happened to him.” Well, that’s when he told me, “Cos, we’ve never had a colored person here before. You’re kind of an experiment, we’re not sure how it’s going to go, and so you are going to have a private room.” I was crushed. I walked back up to my room and called home, and my parents asked me what was going on. I told them, “I can’t deal with this.” I mean, I had just turned 17. So then my father said, “OK, Cos, just come on back and we’ll get you a job in the steel mill.” And I realized, well, I was going to have to make it work. I was just scared to death. But I knew I had to make it work.
How did you make it work, then?
During the first week of classes, I remember that Lehigh hosted a demonstration for all of the different activities you could participate in on campus. It was in the old Taylor Gym, and I remember seeing a demonstration by the fencing team. I thought, “Well, this looks like fun. I’m going to figure out what this is all about.” All of the guys were just super nice. They really welcomed me in, and they told me what nights they held workouts and invited me to come work out. I met the coach, and he ended up giving me private lessons twice a week. I really worked at it. And as it turned out, that was my saving grace—my family. Come November, the coach had to pick the varsity team, and he only took nine guys total, and when he picked the team I was No. 3 in the saber. I ended up fencing all four years at Lehigh. I earned four varsity letters and was captain during my fourth year.
When it came to academics, did you find that you struggled at all making the transition from high school?
There was a learning curve, yes, but mostly it was analytic geometry and calculus that gave me the hardest time. I had a room by myself, of course, so I was able to hit the books really hard. I aced those and couldn’t believe it, and after that, I was OK. I finished the semester with a really decent average.
What were your social interactions like? Did you receive any difficult treatment?
It was an issue sometimes when I walked around campus. Some students, I noticed, would cross the street. But for the most part, the students didn’t really bother me. One of the biggest heartaches I had came at rush time. Rush was going on and there was all of this activity all evening long, there was all of this noise in the hall, and I kept waiting for somebody to knock on my door, and of course that never happened.
And that’s one thing I wanted to talk about. When I came there, there was no Martin Luther King Jr. There was no Civil Rights Act. So what happened here at Lehigh—I really don’t know why it happened. They weren’t forced to do it. So what I eventually concluded was that there must have been several factors that all had to be working in concert with each other to make this happen. Everything had to be in alignment. The trustees could have said no, and for all I know, some of them did. The president had to be lined up behind it. The administrators had to be lined up behind it. Many of the faculty had been pushing for something like this for many years, and I think that was obviously a very positive thing. All of those elements had to be working in concert to have made this happen. Anybody could have vetoed it, but they let it happen. And they provided financial support, too.
Did you find the faculty to be supportive?
When I was a student here, I have to say, many of the faculty were very supportive. During my junior year, I could barely breathe. I was in really bad shape and had just about had it. It was tough enough doing the work and solving the problems. But to just be alone all the time? It was really a burden for me. It became very oppressive.
I remember I was sitting in a lecture one day, and we were learning all about these technical terms you need to know as a chemical engineer. We were talking about how, if you were working in a factory you might have all of these quantities of materials coming in, and then in the middle of the lecture the professor says, “And this is where you need to find your [n-word] to unload all of this stuff.” I just shut down. That’s just one occasion I had to deal with. And I thought after my third year I just could not take it.
How did you cope?
So I started to act out. I started to act out a lot. Was partying too much and all of it. Eventually, the chairman of our department, Alan Foust, who was a big, 6-foot-6 Texan with this deep voice and Texas drawl, called me in to his office and just flat out told me, “The rumor is you’re out partying too much. Do you want to blow everything?” And I tell you what he did next: He called my parents back in Western Pennsylvania and he told them what was going on. Then he asked them, “Would you please come out here? I want to talk to you, in front of him.” And I remember sitting in his office with my mother and my father, and my father just laced me out. I mean, he really tore into me. I got it back together after that. I made it through the semester.
It must have been tough, though. Who supported you?
I had the support of Prof. Foust, the big Texan, and I had the support of another faculty member, who invited me over to his house one day and told me, “I know you’re struggling. Let me help.” And that helped a lot. The last thing that helped, I think, was that the summer after my junior year was the summer that I went to ROTC summer camp. I remember we were standing in lineup, and the commanding officer and the lieutenant colonel came over and asked my name, and when I answered, they said, “Oh, we’ve heard about you. We’ll see if we can’t change that.” And they did. When I came out of that camp, I was just a different person. I was ship-shape. But I think the biggest difference was Foust—he picked up the phone and made that call to my parents. And my father listened to that big Texas drawl on the phone, saying “Cos is acting out, and he’s going to fail.” But in the end, I survived. I received my commission and I survived.
A lot of this resurfaced when I came back for my 50th reunion. We had a big dinner that night, and a classmate of mine, Harry Levine, gave a speech. He had called me about a month before that, and he said he was going to give a speech and he wanted to ask me some questions for the speech. And so at the dinner he’s giving this big speech about Lehigh, and right in the middle he started talking about me, and how he felt now, looking back on those days, that he realized that I must have been very lonely. It was a wonderful speech. Then he asked me to stand, and I did, and it all came back.
I have to ask: Lehigh gave you a great opportunity, and gave you a platform on which to build a wonderful career. But your time here was also very difficult. So what are your feelings for Lehigh today?
I love it. I actually created a scholarship, and the scholarship was for students who were going to major in chemical engineering, or an offshoot. It has nothing to do with race. I had a tough time but when I created the scholarship, it wasn’t just for black students, it was for excellence in chemical engineering. That’s my statement. And to me, it’s a powerful statement. I think it says a lot that I would do that—that I haven’t closed that door behind me.
Lehigh is still dealing with issues related to diversity, and is working to make the campus a welcoming place for all students. I am wondering what your thoughts are about where Lehigh is, and what it can do better.
Sometimes as I read through the Bulletin, I look at all of these alumni with all of the letters after their name—Joe Smith, ’70, P’90 and so forth. But I think that’s an important thing that is missing with minority alumni, and I wonder how many minority alumni end up sending their children here. What’s the legacy? I don’t see it very often. And I think that’s one metric I would look at—what is the comparison of the white children and grandchildren of alumni here vs. the minority children and grandchildren here? Maybe that’s what needs to happen. Maybe we have a situation where prospective minority students are saying, “My father and mother went there, and they had a hard time, so I’m not going.” You’ve got to fix that. What do we do to make it so that our minority graduates say to their kids, “You’ve got to come here?”