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Oral History Interview with Dr. Charlie Yates, Class of 1958
Dr. Charlie Yates as a Senior at VPI, 1958

Part 3

Kennelly: What was your social life like at Virginia Tech? What did you do for a social life?

Yates: As I've indicated, really living in the community provided pretty much a normal social life of any African American in the community at that time. On the day that I graduated I married a young lady who graduated from Christiansburg Institute which was the high school here.

Kennelly: On the day you graduated? Her name was...?

Yates: Ernestine.

Kennelly: The last name?

Yates: McDaniel.

Kennelly: So that was someone you met while you were a student?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: She was at Christiansburg Institute. She graduated from Christiansburg Institute?

Yates: Yes. Yes.

Kennelly: She was someone you met socially at parties.

Yates: Yes. Right.

Kennelly: Were you dating? I guess you must have been. [laughter]

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Were there any community dances?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Would they have music?

Yates: Yes, dances, music, high school football games. We would occasionally go to Roanoke on social activities.

Kennelly: To hear music in a club?

Yates: Yes. I can't remember exactly the club. There was a place there in Roanoke to which a lot of big name, nationally known entertainers used to come. And then occasionally I recall going to some events on campus. I can remember Louis Armstrong was here once.

Kennelly: So you would go to that. Was that a dance?

Yates: No, a concert.

Kennelly: You felt comfortable going to that?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you belong to a church here?

Yates: Well, we lived next door to the Baptist Church on Clay Street, so that was where I went to church most of the time.

Kennelly: What about life in the Blacksburg community? Did you feel comfortable if you wanted to get a cup of coffee anywhere? Did you feel any racism in the community?

Yates: One did not get a cup of coffee anywhere then.

Kennelly: You didn't.

Yates: I don't think any of the facilities were integrated then. You could go to the movie at the Lyric, but you had to sit in the balcony. That was the only facility in town that we could make use of.

Kennelly: You couldn't go to a restaurant?

Yates: No.

Kennelly: It was understood, and it just wasn't something you could walk in and sit down?

Yates: Well, I think at that point in time it may even have been law. I'll always remember that I would occasionally get a ride between here and Norfolk with someone who was going that way and let me go along. There was a restaurant between here and Norfolk ...around Richmond. Very popular. Everyone always stopped there along that route. I can recall that at least on one occasion, some of the fellows with whom I was riding wanted to have me eat with them, which totally couldn't be. So they offered to eat on the other side of the restaurant with me--which they couldn't do--and the interesting thing about this is that the restaurant was owned by an African American.

Kennelly: Really.

Yates: Plus, in fact it was law.

Kennelly: But the students you were with--they would rather mix things. But you both ended up eating in separate areas. Well I heard that Essex Finney and you and maybe another student decided to test the policy of blacks. At that point I think all blacks sat upstairs in the balcony of the Lyric, and you decided to test this and go downstairs. Do you recall this?

Yates: No. [laughter]

Kennelly: Also, Essex Finney recalled going to visit President Newman on a few occasions to express a desire to participate in social activities. Did you go on those visits.

Yates: No.

Kennelly: So as far as the community of Blacksburg...were you going to say something?

Yates: Well you brought back something. I think Finney did attend his ring dance.

Kennelly: It might have been Mr. Whitehurst. Maybe Finney did too. He did too?

Yates: I think so.

Kennelly: And he would be the next year?

Yates: He would be the next year.

Kennelly: I'll check on that. Maybe things changed a lot.

Yates: I could be wrong on that, but I thought in the spring of last year -- I thought we talked about that. But don't quote me.

Kennelly: Okay. So there wasn't overt racial discrimination as far as being in the town. Did anyone ever act in an offensive way to you or hurt your feelings?

Yates: No...because to get from where we were living to campus, we always had to go through town, and so there was no doubt about who we were. But that was never a problem.

Kennelly: After you earned your masters at Cal Tech, you joined the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. You spent twenty years there doing research and development primarily for the Navy. Were you the first black professional on the staff there?

Yates: Well, the year that I was hired was the first year that they hired black professionals, apparently one other person and myself. I don't know who was first.

Kennelly: Did you feel your race made a difference there professionally?

Yates: Professionally, no. Socially, again, yes...because even though we were somewhat out of the South, there were still some of the same social restrictions put on one, even there in Maryland. I recall going to lunch one day with a couple of my older colleagues. We were turned away from a couple of places much to their surprise. At Christmas time, our own little group would go out to a Christmas party and invite our spouses. That was always a problem...where you went to make sure everyone was accepted.

Kennelly: How did you find the climate at Johns Hopkins compared to the climate at Virginia Tech as far as the issues of race and diversity? Was there much of a difference?

Yates: Well, not much of a difference, and I say that because as I've already indicated, I think my relationship with the student body was a good one. That's the same as my professional relationship was at Johns Hopkins. But socially the same kinds of social ills that existed at Tech also were those that I experienced at Johns Hopkins. It was at a time when these things were changing very rapidly, I think probably at Virginia Tech and also at Johns Hopkins. It was a time of history in which we were going through drastic change.

Kennelly: Right...the whole country. Late in your career you helped Hampton start a chemical engineering program, and then you left that because of differences with the administration on issues of accreditation. Was that a difficult decision to leave where you were helping to set up this program and then you couldn't get the support of the administration on accreditation?

Yates: Well, somewhat of a difficult decision. I left Virginia Tech and went to Hampton because I was thinking that there was--based on the experiences I gained up to the point--there was a contribution I could make to that program. So it was discouraging that I wasn't able to do that. But, I had the opportunity to talk with a lot of people who I figured to be very knowledgeable about the direction of the program there, what it should be and how it was going. Based on those conversations I had with, for instance with Paul Torgersen who was then the Dean of Engineering at Virginia Tech, I decided that it was probably best that I leave that program. One makes decisions throughout life where sometimes you can say definitely that it was the right one. Sometimes you can say well you don't really know, but you made the decision, so you can live with it.

Kennelly: Speaking of contributions, what do you regard (in terms of yourself as a professor at Virginia Tech) as your most important contributions, things that stand out in your mind?

Yates: Well that's a very good question. That's one I'm still trying to define for myself. Let me explain why I say that the way I do. I always had what I consider--what was an excellent educational opportunity during a period of time when it was an honor to be exposed to my teachers, whether it was high school or college. Where it was expected that I work hard and produce according to whatever their demands on me happened to be. I find that things have changed a lot. On the other hand, I haven't been able to change as much as a lot of the students are different now. I still tend to expect a lot from students in terms of what they put out. But I find that my impression is that the present day student does not wish to work as hard as I expected to work or that my teachers expected me to work. The present day student is more concerned about grades than knowledge and because of that and because of my own background, I always felt that I was making a very significant contribution as a professor. I always felt a little antagonism because of what I expected of students and what they expected of their professors. I was considered somewhat of a hard-nosed professor. For me, it was not being hard-nosed. It was what I had learned as a student and what was expected of me as a student.

Kennelly: Keeping standards is very important to you?

Yates: To me, yes. I'm sure that had there not been those standards throughout my life, I would not have been nearly as succcessful. So I see them as being very important.

Kennelly: You served on the Board of Visitors at Virginia Tech from 1983-1987. Does anything stand out from this experience--any action you felt that you might have been able to influence or any action that sticks out that you thought was important?

Yates: As I've thought back to that experience, it was a very good experience. I think the Board and myself, as a part of the Board, probably relied a lot on the information that was given to us by the administration in terms of what the direction of the university needed to be--that we were able to support the administration in that regard. I guess what I'm really asking myself, did the Board really take the initiative to do anything drastic in terms of trying to change the direction of the University? I say no, we more or less supported the administration in terms of the kinds of things they had set out to do. There were some controversial things associated with my tenure on the Board that tend to stick out in my mind more than they should--but they do. Like the situation with the former athletic director, Bill Dooley. At the time, he was essentially asked to resign as Athletic Director. [End of Tape 1, Side B, start Tape 2, Side A]

Yates: That was a contentious time, and also the questions surrounding the land swap that occurred during my tenure on the Board. All of the property which is now part of the mall and that whole area had been university land, and that land was swapped for some farmland on the New River. Especially in hindsight one can look at that and sort of feel that the university probably got the short end of that deal. We could have done a lot better.

Kennelly: That was controversial at the time?

Yates: That was somewhat controversial at the time, yes, and still controversial, in my own mind.

Kennelly: You've really experienced the university under several very different administrations, Dr. Newman through Dr. Torgersen. I wondered if you had any reflections on how those administrations affected making cultural diversity possible at the university. Were there any that seemed particularly strong or proactive or even impeding growth in this situation?

Yates: For about twenty years I didn't have a lot of contact with the university. A large part of that time, Marshall Hahn was president. My understanding of history is that great strides were made during that time. At the time that I reestablished my association with the university, when Bill Lavery was president, there had been obviously tremendous change from my previous association with the university as a student. In terms of diversity, at the point that I came back to the university, there was obviously a big change generally in the environment of the university, including diversity among the faculty and the students. Although I always find it sort of interesting that during that time when I had a daughter who was enrolled as a student...she graduated in of her big complaints here was the lack of diversity, which I never could quite understand.

Kennelly: In terms of racial diversity?

Yates: Yes, student body-wise. There were hundreds of African American students then, yet I found it manageable with only four such students. I never did quite understand that. I think that the administrations that have followed Lavery's administration--I think have done a good job in terms of increasing diversity amongst the student population and faculty and staff. I recognize the difficulty associated with attracting students, faculty, and staff to Virginia Tech primarily because of the geographical location, and I sometimes think that there is probably a bad rap when we are compared with say, UVA [University of Virginia] regarding the diversity issue. Primarily because of the geographical location, it is very difficult to attract many minorities to this area of Virginia.

Kennelly: Because it's so cut off?

Yates: Yes.

Kennelly: What do you feel is the greatest challenge that's confronting the university now? What are the greatest opportunities in general terms that the university faces now?

Yates: Well having recognized that it is a difficult job that the university has, obviously it makes for much more ingenuity in trying to attract minorities to the university. It makes for a tough job, but it's one I think the university is committed to and ought to be obligated to, and therefore it's good to work and continue to work on that problem.

Kennelly: I read somewhere that (and this was a few years back) you made the comment that at this point the problem was not so much recruitment as retention. I think you were specifically thinking of engineering students in this article I read.

Yates: That is a problem. That's another one. I'm not really sure what the answer is. I know that the College of Engineering has put a lot of resources towards recruiting and retaining minority students. Bevlee Watford especially has done a great job in that regard. But retention is still somewhat of a problem, and it's not only at Virginia Tech. I think it's true of engineering schools across the country. I've talked previously about how I see the psyche of the present day student as different from back when I was a student. I think that's especially true of minority students because in many cases they have come from environments and schools where there has not been proper emphasis on learning, as much as on getting good grades. As a result of that, when they get into an environment that exists in engineering schools, generally, it is difficult to cope. There is a basic understanding that you have to have if you're going to do well in engineering. It's got to be understanding and not what your grades were in school.

Kennelly: So somehow that must be addressed with the students. That is the challenge, to work with the students in some way. If we think of it in terms of what the challenge of the university is with underrepresented groups, it's sort of to change their whole perception in a way. Is that accurate to say?

Yates: Whose perception?

Kennelly: That student's perception of knowledge rather than why they are pursing the whole thing. Is it the grades? Is it the knowledge? If they are going to be successful in that kind of world.

Yates: Well, I suppose if I were really pressured, I would have to say that probably by the time the students get here, there is not a lot more than what we are currently doing that can be done. It's probably too late. Before we are going to improve significantly on our success in retaining minority students, somehow we are going to have to influence their education in the secondary school environment.

Kennelly: It can make the difference?

Yates: How do you do that? I think that it's been often recognized, the need for that, and there've been programs put into place to address that situation. But obviously, that is one that's going to take a long time before one sees any real benefits from that.

Kennelly: I wondered how you regarded the campus climate here regarding African American faculty and staff. The first black faculty was Overton Johnson in 1969, and then you came in 1979. I know you were president of the Black Faculty and Staff Caucus in Virginia Tech in 1988 through 1990. How did you view the climate here in regard to black faculty and staff?

Yates: From what perspective?

Kennelly: I suppose from the perspective of professional advancement and the supportiveness of the community.

Yates: I can only speak personally in this regard. I never felt that I was at a big disadvantage in terms of my being able to advance my professional career. Personally, I think I made some technical errors in regard to my career here at Virginia Tech. Especially since I came back in 1987. At that point I was 50 percent faculty and 50 percent Director of Minority Engineering Program. That turns out to be probably a situation that one typically does not want to be in. I was expected to develop a research program pretty much at the level of a full time faculty while having these other administrative responsibilities. That was not a good situation to be in, and it was one that I felt I let myself into and I shouldn't have. As a result, any consequences of that I have to bear the responsibility as much as anyone else. But it is difficult for me to speak about the climate for faculty, especially other than my own personal experiences. It's not like I had the opportunity to talk with other black faculty in engineering in terms of how much support they were or were not getting. Typically I'm out there by myself, so it's a matter of how I perceive my own situation. I try not to take that too far in generalizing what sort of relationship black faculty have here at Virginia Tech. Mostly by hearsay I gather that the feeling generally is that the support is not there. But I can only accept that as hearsay. I really don't have any immediate knowledge of those situations.

Kennelly: So in your own case you were really taking on two jobs?

Yates: That's a bad move. [laughter]

Kennelly: A difficult move to do. You mentioned about your daughter's perception as a student here in the 1980s. I believe that you had another daughter, Tracy who went to Hampton in Business Administration and a son, Christopher who graduated from Hampton in Communications Studies. I wondered about your perception as a parent seeing a traditionally all black school like Hampton, which I think is still all black, compared to going to a school like Virginia Tech which is mostly white, some black. I know in the 1980s there was a lot more students than when you were here. I think probably the school changed rapidly.

Yates: The Virginia Tech population was probably already 18,000, roughly. I have to be a little careful because I'll end up slamming my kid's alma mater. [laughter] I would have to say that generally the education that present day kids get at a predominantly white institution like Virginia Tech is quite superior to what they would obtain from a predominantly black institution like Hampton. I say that not only on the basis of what I know about the education that my kids have obtained and their feelings about their education but also on the basis of having been a faculty there. For me it's very simple. When I talk about my high school educational background, I attribute my success to my teachers there. Very highly prepared, over prepared--and that's what generally I think forms the basis for a strong education. The preparation, the ability, the experience of the teachers. In the present day environment, good teachers tend to be lured away to the predominantly white institutions; especially a good teacher, say at Hampton University, more often than not is going to end up at a Virginia Tech because the conpensation is that much better. That's life, and we talk about it in terms of our education system all the time now. Secondly, the school systems, we say, don't have good teachers because the better teachers are lured into high tech areas where they do better. I think it's also true when you start comparing the institutions of higher education. It's just that simple. The better prepared the teachers are, the better the educated students you'll get at the institution.

Kennelly: The teachers have to go where they can get...

Yates: Yes, generally they do. Of course not everyone does. There's always that dedicated person who is going to be somewhere because they are just dedicated. But in real life we often tend to go where we are better compensated.

Kennelly: You were a visiting professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at University of Pretoria at the Republic of South African in the spring of 1996. I wonder if you could make any comments or observations from that experience. I imagine there is a totally different educational scene than here.

Yates: There are several things. I can talk about that short experience from several in general. I always found it interesting that many of the faculty were complaining about the same kinds of things faculty were complaining about students at Virginia Tech in terms of expectations of students, what they want and what they put into it. That's the same. That was very interesting. The visit was a very interesting experience in terms of minority engineering because there's a situation where in the past the blacks in Africa had not been attracted to engineering. They did not really see engineering as a profession that was highly respected. They are more likely to go into law or medicine or some areas such as that. On the other hand, since the blacks have taken control of the government in South Africa, obviously in the interest of the economy growing and advancing there is going to be a very large need for the blacks to become involved in engineering. So it was a very satisfying experience to me because one of the things I was trying to do was to go around the country...I did extensive traveling across South Africa...talking to high school and college kids about engineering. Black kids, trying to impress on them that it is a rewarding profession, important profession, and I hope I was a little bit successful. I was very well accepted all over the country. It was a really great experience for the majority blacks and I, as well as the minority whites.

Kennelly: Do you think the fact that I'm not a black interviewer...did that make a difference in how or what you'd say in the interview.

Yates: No. I have interacted with whites for a very large majority of my life. While I can not say I'm colorblind because there's always, subconsciously at least, the awareness of this difference. I think I've learned these many years pretty much how to live with my white brother as well or as easily as with anyone else. Again, it's always subconscious even now when I walk into any kind of setting when I'm the only black there. I guess one has to still do a little adjusting. It's not the same as walking into an environment where you are in the majority. It's always--that's life, and I think, hopefully I've learned to live it as well as can be expected.

Kennelly: You're retiring or you did retire from the University?

Yates: I did retire.

Kennelly: What kind of plans do you have?

Yates: Well, one of the reasons I retired as early as I did...actually, it's not really all that early because I'm sixty-four this year...I was diagnosed about four years ago with a chronic disease. While it really hasn't affected me yet, I don't know how long that will last. I decided that I wanted to spend time with my family members as much as possible. Hopefully, that's still quite awhile however long that is. I have nine grandchildren and one great granddaughter. I'd like to spend a lot of my time with them.

Kennelly: Where do you plan--are you leaving the area?

Yates: I plan to return to the Norfolk area, probably Chesapeake, Virginia. That's where my siblings are. My kids are scattered around across the country. But that will be the base from which I'll try to spend more time with the kids and the grandkids.

Kennelly: One thing I didn't ask you about was the Minority Affairs Committee. Was there anything important that stands out in your mind that the committee addressed?

Yates: Which Minority Affairs?

Kennelly: That was here at Virginia Tech.

Yates: In the College of Engineering?

Kennelly: I don't know. It wasn't clear in the thing I looked at. Maybe it wasn't in the College of Engineering. Were you instrumental in getting the Engineering Minority Center started?

Yates: I was the one associated with the program when it first started. But, Bevlee Watford joined the program shortly after the center opened, and she pretty much took over from there.

Kennelly: Is there something else you wanted to add that I haven't asked you about that you feel is important?

Yates: I think you've done a great job covering it all!

Kennelly: I did wonder somewhere it said Torgersen started this minority consortium with seven Virginia corporations that provided engineering scholarships to qualified engineering students. This has been active for seven years. Has anything filled in that gap to your knowledge where business is funding...?

Yates: Well I'm sure that businesses are still funding some of the programs that Bevlee Watford is carrying out. She has a dual role as Associate Dean of Engineering, but she still directs the Minority Engineering Programs. I know there are a lot of companies that support that program.

Kennelly: Earlier when I asked you to comment on your professional career here, you talked about the teaching aspect of it. I was wondering about the research aspect of it.

Yates: Well, one of the things that happened as a result of my getting involved in two jobs was that I got behind in my research effort. I was never really able to get it back on track.

Kennelly: That must have been frustrating.

Yates: Yes, I know that was one of the reasons I was not as successful as I could have been as a faculty. In fact I never did make full professorship--the research.

Kennelly: Did you want to comment at all on the changes you have seen in the College of Engineering? In another interview you did, you mentioned that when you actually left Virginia Tech as a student and went to Cal Tech you didn't feel yourself, at that point, perhaps as prepared as you would have wanted to be. It seems there has been a radical change in the department as a whole.

Yates: There has been a radical change in engineering here. Not unlike that which has occurred in many universities in the 1960s when those changes started. It was just a part of the natural evolution of a lot of the engineering colleges where they evolved from more of hands-on programs to more technically oriented programs.

Kennelly: Maybe that's happening in places like South Africa, too. You said it wasn't viewed there by students who wanted to be doctors, lawyers--maybe I'm not making the connection there. Maybe it's not a hands-on but more a technical or theoretical aspect.

Yates: Well that's what's probably needed there. The kinds of occupations the blacks have been involved in South Africa in the past would probably be more of technicians as opposed to engineering. Technicians are very much hands-on.

Kennelly: When you went over there what you were doing is going around talking with people?

Yates: My trip was funded partially by the University of Pretoria where I taught a couple of courses, but also it was sponsored by the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineering.... I believe that's correct...a professional organization very much like what in this country we have in the ASME. They have in South Africa, an all white organization because again the blacks... [Tape ends--end of interview on tape] 3/22/02 Revisions made from Dr. Yates' copy 12/23/02

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