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Penn State’s First African American Graduate: Calvin C. Waller

If you tilt your head high and look far above the towering columns of Old Main, you will see the engraved words of Abraham Lincoln from the July 2, 1982, Act of Congress that created land-grant institutions: “To promote liberal and practical education in the several pursuits and professions of life.”

Calvin Waller

Since becoming the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant institution in 1863, it has been Penn State’s goal to offer its students a practical education to enter the workforce and provide service to their communities. Perhaps no alumnus has better carried out Penn State’s original mission than Calvin H. Waller, the University’s first African American graduate. Waller, who graduated from Penn State in 1905 with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, went on to pursue a fulfilling career and pave the way for the many black students and agriculturists who would seek an education after him.

Waller was born on May 1, 1880, in Macon, Georgia. Before enrolling at Penn State, which at the time was known as Pennsylvania State College, Waller received training at three African American agricultural training schools in Alabama, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He enrolled at Penn State in 1899, and although the University kept no formal records of students’ racial identities at the time, he is known to be the University’s first black graduate based on testimonies from his peers and records in the college yearbook, La Vie.

According to the 1904 edition of the yearbook, Waller, or “Cal,” was well liked and admired by students and professors at Penn State.

“He is about as congenial a fellow as you may care to strike and is always ready to battle for the right,” reads one line in the paragraph under his name.

At Penn State, Waller excelled both academically and in extracurricular activities. He played football on a campus team, sang in the choir, and was associate editor of La Vie in 1904.

In 1902, Booker T. Washington, who was the leader of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, wrote to Penn State’s then-president George Atherton, seeking students of color who were qualified to enter his school. Atherton wrote back to Washington, praising and recommending Waller, but adding that the young man would need a few more years at Penn State to learn skills and be fully prepared for the Tuskegee Institute.

Waller graduated from Penn State in 1905 and worked at an institute in Augusta for three years. In 1907, he became a vegetable gardening instructor at what is now Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where he worked for the rest of his life. By 1910 he became head of the department and in 1920 he became the state leader for the Extension Service for Negroes in Texas, which became one of the largest and most effective educational units for the rehabilitation of agricultural life for blacks in the South.

According to a 1987 article in the 
Philadelphia Tribune, Waller traveled widely across Texas and grew to be a legendary figure among black agriculturists throughout the state. He urged black farmers to adopt production techniques based on science rather than superstition.

Today, Waller’s legacy lives on at Penn State through the Bunton-Waller Fellows Program and Bunton-Waller scholarships, which aim to increase enrollment of historically underrepresented populations at the University and provide them with financial support.