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I recently attended the 2024 Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) STEM Conference.

At the conference, I was overjoyed to see scientists receive the standing ovations and awards they richly deserved, recognition that is sadly all too often reserved only for Black athletes and pop stars. We need to do more to recognize other professionals who have done so much!

As I thought about this problem, it dawned on me that my family was saved, and our future was made possible by ancestors who believed in education and the possibilities afforded by careers in STEM despite the numerous obstacles thrown in their path.

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A STEM education truly pays it forward. For those who don’t know, STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” I prefer the term STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics—but that is a discussion for another day.

My grandfather Dr. Herbert M. Frisby was a renowned educator, arctic explorer, war correspondent for the Baltimore Afro Newspapers, journalist, historian, musician, and much more. He achieved fame as the “Second Negro to Reach the North Pole” and a biographer of Matthew Henson his lifelong hero.

My grandfather’s extensive Arctic collection is now located at the Banneker Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. However, at his core, my grandfather was a biology teacher whose students at the famous Douglass High School included future luminaries such as Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway. His motto was “I only taught the smart students.”

But for STEM and his determination, this would not have happened. Instead, he probably would have been left to wander the docks of Baltimore. After all, my grandfather was a Black kid born in 1886 in absolute poverty in South Baltimore. His father was a grain clerk, and his mother took in wash. They did not have inside plumbing and at times he went to school with patches in his pants.

During this period it was expected that Black girls would drop out of school after third grade and boys after eighth grade, and both were then expected to go to work. Although my great-grandmother Ida Henry Frisby had no formal schooling, she wanted more for her children.

Ignoring jeers and criticisms from friends, family, and neighbors, she insisted that her children get an education as a way out of poverty. My grandfather became inspired. That became his guiding star. He determined that he would continue to high school (where he met my grandmother—they were later married for 53 years) and then on to college.

He wanted to become a doctor. He sold peanuts on the street to get by. This dream saved his life. There was a cholera epidemic that caused the death of one of his brothers. His life was in danger; however, the local Black doctor aware of my grandfather’s desire to become a physician, decided to treat him with the cholera vaccine even though the family could not afford to pay.

My grandfather never became a doctor; instead, he went on to teach science at both the high school and college levels. He worked his way through Howard University while working at night as a butler and on weekends as a musician. He graduated in 1909.

Taking advantage of the fact that the State of Maryland would pay for blacks to obtain graduate degrees from out-of-state institutions to avoid having to integrate the University of Maryland, my grandfather received a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. (Maryland’s loss not his!).

Unfortunately, after that Columbia refused to permit him to pursue his doctorate because of the color of his skin! According to Columbia’s Dean of the Education Department, no colored man was going to get a doctorate while she was there. Although that rejection would cause him pain until his dying day, my grandfather remained undeterred.

A firm believer in continuing education, he did further graduate work in science education at a number of institutions including Penn State and the University of Alaska and he was usually the only Black in the program.

As an aside, although his study request was initially rejected by the State of Maryland as being ridiculous for a Negro, the state eventually acquiesced to avoid having to integrate the University of Maryland.

Much later in life, my grandfather received an honorary doctorate from Morgan State University in recognition of all of his work. He was forever grateful for this honor. Back to the importance of STEM.

As I mentioned earlier, my grandfather’s first love (aside from his family) was biology and he believed in learning through experimentation. He taught me the scientific method and how to use a microscope when I was still in elementary school. My son still has one of my grandfather’s old microscopes.

When I was six or seven, my grandfather took me on a plane flight so that I could have the experience. That was something that he often did with his best students. He always had the latest technology. Unfortunately due to age, he missed the computer revolution.

It is important to recognize that I was only one of the thousands who benefited from my grandfather’s love of science and his dedication to educating future generations. He taught from 1909 until the 1960s.

He was always exploring (not just in the Arctic) and seeking newer and more innovative ways to teach. He was instrumental in introducing experimentation and other innovative teaching methods into the Baltimore School System. So much so, that white teachers were often sent to Douglass High School to observe his methods.

As a self-described “radical” (a term used by W.E.B. DuBois), my grandfather was often ridiculed and criticized for “rocking the boat” or not “knowing his place.” Ignoring such criticism he continued in his pursuits with dogged determination.

But what has this meant for my family?

If nothing else, he was a role model from whom we have learned the value of perseverance and education. My children are fourth-generation
college graduates. My wife is a science educator, and I am an attorney who specializes in energy, telecommunications. and tech law and regulation. I doubt that would have happened but for my grandfather’s determination to pursue a career in STEM.

We are not unique. My wife’s family also benefited from a maternal grandfather in Louisville who pushed by his mother, determinately pursued a career in STEM and a maternal grandmother who was a Fisk University-educated mathematician, as well as from a father from rural Virginia who became a world-class Prosthodontist surgeon and a Howard Dental School Dean. However, that is a story for another day which is being written by others. But what is true for today is that STEM is a pathway to the future unto the third and fourth generations!

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