Civil Rights

The sciences could level the playing field for African Americans

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Fifteen years before John Glenn’s first flight into space—given new texture by the movie “Hidden Figuresabout the black women who did the manual calculations to guide his journey — Roy Clay turned down an offer to play baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals into order to begin a degree in mathematics at St. Louis University.

Earlier that summer, Clay had been detained by two policemen in then-all white Ferguson, Mo and told to never enter that town again.

Upon graduation in 1951, Clay was invited to an interview with McDonnell Aircraft, only to be told when arriving “there are no jobs for professional Negroes.”

Five years later, he would be hired, after Brown v. Board of Education, as programmer for McDonnell’s first computer. Bill Gates was two months old at the time.

{mosads}In 1958, Clay began programming the fastest computer in the world at the Lawrence Radiation Lab in northern California, helping to create our nuclear deterrent. When Glenn took off, Clay was manager of Fortran and Cobol programming for Control Data in Palo Alto, a job he held until David Packard recruited him as manager of computer research and development for Hewlett Packard in 1965.

Like the women of “Hidden Figures”, Clay’s path to becoming a Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame member is all the more remarkable because it is largely unknown.

In an opinion article for the San Jose Mercury News, he reflected on the death of Michael Brown and noted that it could have been him, back in 1947.

When only 0.9 percent of African-American students take calculus, 70 years after Clay excelled in the field, we must take full advantage of the technology heritage they represent.

As he related the police incident to his mother, Clay recalls that she told him, “You will face racism all your life. Never let it be the reason you don’t succeed.”

More than 450,000 African-Americans have followed in Clay’s footsteps, including 24 percent of all federal technology employees and a similar proportion of military technologists.

Yet, they often face the same roadblocks that Clay faced in the 1950s. 

Silicon Ceiling 15: Equal Opportunity in High Technology reviewed recruitment web sites of 243 San Francisco tech firms and found that only 18 had a picture of an African-American among the employees.  Only 22 listed themselves as equal opportunity employers.

In recognition of Clay’s service to national security, a new Western headquarters for the National GeoSpatial-Intelligence Agency in St. Louis should be named for him.

Like the movie, this recognition will give young people the hope and confidence to soar past the barriers of intolerance and create the innovations that the future demands.

Clay would go on to greenlight Intel, Compaq and Tandem. What would our society be like without the original coder?

Reducing numbers like the more than 700 murders in Chicago requires teaching his story much more widely.

We need to see the teenagers of today not as candidates for mass incarceration or murder but as the Roy Clays of the future.

John William Templeton has tracked technology equal opportunity since 1998 in the annual Silicon Ceiling report.  He is former editor of the San Jose Business Journal , publishes the Journal of Black Innovation and currently heads Zenviba Capital in San Francisco.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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