Conversations With Engineering Pioneers: John Brooks Slaughter

Fri, January 05, 2024

In August 2023, NAE President John Anderson had the opportunity to interview engineering pioneer John Brooks Slaughter regarding his distinguished career and his hopes for the future. The full interview is available for viewing on the NAE YouTube channel. Segments from Dr. Slaughter’s interview are noted below. The interview transcript has been edited for grammar and clarity.

Life in Topeka, Kansas

Raised in Topeka, Kansas, during segregation, Dr. Slaughter faced many obstacles—both in education and in life.

We had to adjust our lives to the fact that there were things that we were not going to be able to do. But it also provided us an opportunity to develop some resolve that was necessary to survive and be productive in that environment.

Slaughter also had a front-row seat to events surrounding the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine. His cousin, Lucinda Todd, was among the original petitioners in the class action suit seeking to bring about integration in Topeka’s elementary schools.

I had the good fortune of having a cousin, Lucinda Todd, who really was the seminal figure in the creation of the lawsuit. Aunt Cindy, as we called her, was somewhat older than my sisters and me. Aunt Cindy invited Thurgood Marshall to come to Topeka. Aunt Cindy was really the first person who attempted to get her daughter enrolled in one of the elementary schools, and that was denied, which was why she began this effort.

Thurgood Marshall decided to name the case after Oliver Brown rather than Aunt Cindy because he felt the Brown daughter, Linda Brown, had a stronger argument about the difficulty of going to school. So we followed the case very closely because Aunt Cindy would come to our home almost every Sunday and tell us what was going on.

Education

When I went to high school, I was funneled into a vocational track, being unaware that I was not going to be able to pursue a full academic curriculum. When I graduated from high school, I had good grades, but I didn’t have the science and mathematics courses that I needed to go to Kansas State.

Slaughter started his formal education at Washburn University, then transferred to Kansas State University, where he was the school’s first Black engineering student.

I had no Black classmates. I was the only African American in my graduating class.

After being denied entrance to a restaurant on his first day, Slaughter wrote a letter to the school newspaper, saying he thought “that was just not consistent with what the university should do.”

On my first day, I became a rebel.

Career Accomplishments

My parents never let my sisters and I believe that we were inferior in any way, so I always had the feeling that I could accomplish anything that anyone else could.

It was that drive and perseverance that enabled Slaughter to accomplish many great things—not just for himself, but for the betterment of society.

Dr. Slaughter’s career encompassed many “firsts,” including being the first Black director of the National Science Foundation, the first Black chancellor of the University of Maryland, and the first Black president of Occidental College in Los Angeles. He was also one of the first three African Americans inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. Dr. Slaughter became a member in 1982 for “contributions to the design of digital, sampled-data control systems, and leadership in shaping national engineering science policy and in fostering increased participation of minorities in engineering.” He also served as president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, where he focused on increasing the number of engineers of color.

Where the NAE Can Lead

Dr. Slaughter commended the steps the NAE has taken in recent years to bolster the connection between the field of engineering and underrepresented minorities. At the same time, he saw the opportunity for the NAE to strengthen its role as a leader in making engineering more inclusive of minority communities and in improving the social conditions of the United States more broadly.

NAE is playing a major role, and has an opportunity to even do more, in terms of helping the engineering community understand the importance of being involved in much of the social environment in which we find ourselves in 2023.

After the George Floyd incident, I think the nation became more understanding of the negative issues that face the minority community. I’m very proud of the fact that the National Academy of Engineering has stepped up under your leadership to make a difference. The Racial Justice and Equity Committee that you established, led by Percy Pierre, has made some significant contributions to improving the relationship and connection of minorities to the field of engineering.

It is critically important that we have strong public recognition, public involvement, in helping us improve the social condition of this county. I’m optimistic, actually, that we’ll be able to do that.

I thought about the recent decision by the Supreme Court on affirmative action. I’ve always said to leaders of organizations, ‘Well, we may not have affirmative action, but we can always act affirmatively.’ I believe that very strongly.

Changes in Engineering Education

According to Slaughter, for engineering to live up to its potential to improve society, the field must deepen its engagement with the humanities and social sciences.

I think that going forward, the whole field needs to become much more knowledgeable about the humanities. I taught a course at USC, Technology and Society, and it really opened my eyes to how engineering can play a significant part in how we improve the social condition of our nation. That would be what I would suggest going forward: a greater connection to the humanities and social sciences in engineering.

To view the full interview with John Brooks Slaughter click here.