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Barrier Breakers


Katherine Johnson


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In this edition of "The List," we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and all civil rights warriors who've made West Virginia University a better, brighter place throughout its history. The following are just a few examples of Mountaineers that epitomize King's vision and broke barriers on campus.

Those who went first 

Harriet Lyon
                                                                                                     Harriet Lyon

While the Agricultural College of West Virginia – which is now WVU – officially opened in 1867, women were not admitted into the University as degree candidates until 1889. Two years later, Harriet Lyon became the first woman to earn a degree at WVU, and she finished first in the class ahead of all male students.  

Before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, some black students did attend WVU. Those students mainly took graduate courses not offered at black colleges.
But one of them became the first black student to graduate from WVU and it happened the same year as the Brown v. Board ruling.  


Jack Hodge (pictured above on the right conducting an interview for the Daily Athenaeum) earned his bachelor's degree in journalism in 1954 and went on to a long, successful career as a newsman. He worked at the Baltimore News-American, which had the largest circulation in the city for much of the mid-20th century, until it closed in 1986, and taught journalism at Howard University. He died in 1991.


On the faculty side, Victorine Louistall (later Victorine Louistall Monroe) arrived at WVU in 1966 to teach library science to become the first-known black faculty member at the University. She had returned to WVU after also becoming the first black woman to earn a graduate degree here in 1945.  

Hidden figure 

Katherine Johnson and President Obama
                         Katherine Johnson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015. NASA Photo.

You've likely heard about the new biographical drama film "Hidden Figures," about a team of three black female mathematicians who helped calculate flight trajectories for groundbreaking space projects including the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. 

The leader of the group was White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.-native Katherine Johnson (featured in the main photo at the top), also the first black woman to desegregate graduate studies at WVU in 1938. At the time, she was one of three black students, and the only female, to attend graduate studies at WVU following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required public universities to accept black graduate students if similar courses weren't available at black colleges. 

Although her stay at WVU was brief – she spent just one summer here – Johnson was awarded an honorary degree from the University in 2016 and is widely acclaimed as an American space pioneer. 

In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the president.

Following a historic career with NASA, Johnson, now 98, lives in Newport News, Va. [This story was published in 2017. Johnson died in 2020 at the age of 101.]

Women on the march


Women weren't accepted into the Mountaineer Marching Band until 1972. 

Before arriving at WVU in 1971 to take over as Marching Band director, Don Wilcox taught at California high schools, Wichita State University and California State University, Long Beach. 
When he arrived at WVU, he was perplexed. Wilcox inherited an all-male group of 88 students. As a father, Wilcox imagined his three daughters being denied an opportunity to join the band if they ever had the desire. 

“I taught in high schools and two other universities,” Wilcox said. “I never saw a band that was not a coed group. I told the president of WVU that it wasn’t right and was probably illegal. We needed to fix it.” 

So fix it they did. 

In 1972, for the first time, the band included women — 12 of them. Not everyone welcomed that change.

“A lot of the guys had a fit,” Wilcox recalled. “Some said they’d quit. I told them, ‘Well, go ahead and quit. Or you can just deal with it.’

“[The women] were all determined to succeed.”



In 2016, the University welcomed the opening of its new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Center. 

A proposed center had been in the works for a few years with the rise of LGBTQ centers at many of WVU's peer institutions in the Big 12 and other national land-grant universities. 

The WVU center, however, hopes to become a unique model for others to emulate as it represents a message of inclusivity on campus and in the community. 

The center has already launched several programs and houses staff offices and workspace in Hodges Hall along with gathering spaces and a computer lab.

“As we envisioned the layout of the center, we wanted to make sure to build a place where students could think and talk about their experiences as members of the LGBTQ+ community,” said LGBTQ Center Director Cris Mayo (pictured above), who stepped into her role in the summer of 2016. “But we also wanted them to come here as students.” 

Share your stories of trailblazers in the comments below.