Looking Back: Auburn's first African-American undergraduate alumnus reflects on being one of seven African-American students on campus in the 1960s

Published: January 20, 2015
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COSAM alumnus Samuel Pettijohn, physics '67, was one of only seven African-American students when he was enrolled at Auburn University. A native of Cornelia, Ga., he was the first African-American undergraduate student to receive a degree from Auburn, and in January 2013, in celebration of 50 years of integration, he was recognized for his culture-changing achievement during a ceremony hosted by the university.

As Pettijohn looks back at his days as a student at Auburn, his memories contain a measure of optimism and resilience in the face of adversity.

"I have been asked a number of times what it was like to be one of seven African-American students at Auburn in the 1960s, and I have given it a lot of thought. In some ways, it was not as negative an experience for us seven as it probably was for students who enrolled later. Because our numbers were so small, I suspect some students didn't even know we were on campus," said Pettijohn. "In the campus environment there were obviously some negatives. We didn't associate with the other students in the class, and they wouldn't acknowledge us at all outside of the classroom; or if we sat at a table in the cafeteria or library, students would stand up and leave. But we used it to our advantage. If the seven of us wanted to meet and sit together, we knew we could easily clear a table. If one of us sat down, we knew no one else would sit there."

Pettijohn's route to an Auburn University degree did not begin at Auburn. After high school, he enrolled in engineering at Tuskegee University, but when Tuskegee decided to begin a physics curriculum, he changed his major.

"Physics was something that appealed to me," he said, "so I quickly changed. Unfortunately, the program didn't last long."

For reasons that remain unclear to Pettijohn, Tuskegee's fledgling physics program began to founder. With the program near termination, a Tuskegee professor contacted Auburn physics professor Raymond Askew and made arrangements for Pettijohn to continue his education in his chosen field at Auburn.

"Originally, what I was told was that I would continue to be officially enrolled at Tuskegee and just attend the classes at Auburn," Pettijohn said. "And that's the way it was the first term. But, after that first term, I was told I would have to enroll at Auburn."

Pettijohn, along with the other six African-American students enrolled at Auburn, lived in Magnolia Hall, and became fast friends.

"I still cherish those friends and, largely because of them and because of professors like Dr. Askew and Dr. Howard Carr (the head of the physics department at the time), my memories of Auburn are pleasant ones," said Pettijohn.

Pettijohn said his degree from Auburn helped him tremendously in his career, beginning in the first four years after graduation as he served in the U.S. Army.

"At the time in the late 60s, having a technical degree was a very good thing – it's still a very good thing. It made a lot of difference for me, and probably even more so because there were fewer African-Americans with engineering science degrees," said Pettijohn. "I went into the Army six months after I graduated because I was in ROTC. I started ROTC at Tuskegee University and completed my assignment at Auburn, and was commissioned after I graduated. I was actually the first African-American to complete the ROTC program at Auburn as well."

Pettijohn was in the Army Corps of Engineers when he served time in Germany and Vietnam. He received a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal for his service in combat support in Vietnam. He was then assigned to the Defense Nuclear Weapons School in Albuquerque, N.M., with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Following his military service, he worked with several private companies and NASA before taking a position with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1977, where he remained for 26 years. In 1987, he received a master's of engineering science in computer science from Loyola College, and in 2001, Auburn awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree.

Over the course of his career, Pettijohn served in various capacities at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and was a senior project manager when he retired in 2003. His background is in event analysis related to accidents and incidents involving commercial and industrial uses of nuclear material, including the nuclear fuel cycle, and he was instrumental in developing a database of radiation incidents and accidents for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Prior to his retirement, he also worked on the development of a similar database on an international scale.

Since 2007, Pettijohn has served as the principal of Pilgrim Christian Day School, a role he accepted on a temporary basis but has become a second career. Pilgrim Christian Day School, located in Baltimore, Md., serves children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

"Overall, since I have spoken to people on different occasions at Auburn, most recently this past January when they had their celebration of 50 years of integration, I always wonder what the environment is like for students now – are they in college learning and enjoying what they are doing? My college experience wasn't really that great as the outside things distracted from the education, but it wasn't that negative either, because l could always see the overall objective," said Pettijohn.

"What the experience really taught me is how much talent was probably lost because we couldn't treat people fairly. It's just a total waste when you think about it. And even today, how many kids won't go into physics or some other area because they are made to believe they can't do something. I say all this because one of the real blessings I have from working in an elementary school is it makes me aware of my responsibility to help all of the children I work with and make sure they know they need to go out and do the best that they can with the talents they have and not be hindered by people telling them they can't do something. I spent most of my life listening to people tell me I can't do things, and I want them to work past it."

Pettijohn and his wife, Ann, live in Owings Mills, Md., and have two adult sons: Shannon and Christopher.
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