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.”