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Honoring Black History Month: A Brief Look At Influential Black Penn Staters

Before Black History Month comes to a close, we’d be remiss not to highlight some of the many influential Black Penn Staters who’ve impacted the university throughout its history.

From trailblazing students to pioneering faculty, here’s a brief look at some of Penn State’s most significant Black alumni, administrators, and figures.

Calvin Waller

Image via Penn State (Left: Calvin Waller, Right: Mildred Bunton)

Calvin H. Waller was the first Black student to attend and graduate from Penn State in 1899 and 1905, respectively. He earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and was involved in Penn State’s yearbook, La Vie, as an editor, joined the Alpha Zeta agriculture fraternity, and volunteered with the National History Club. He was the quarterback for the intramural football team, a vocalist in the Cecelian Quartette, and president of the Glee Club.

Mildred Bunton

Mildred Settle Bunton was the first Black woman to study and graduate from Penn State in 1929 and 1932, respectively. She worked at the university to receive room and board (what is known as federal work-study today) and received scholarships from the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women. She was a dean’s list student who graduated with honors from the home economics department.

Following her time at Penn State, Bunton earned a master’s degree in nutrition from Cornell in 1953. Today, Bunton and Calvin Waller’s legacies as the first Black male and female students at Penn State carry on through the university’s Bunton-Waller Scholars Program.

Wally Triplett III

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Wallace “Wally” Triplett was the first African-American starter for Penn State football. Triplett was also the first Black man to earn a varsity letter in 1946, and in 1949, the first Black Penn State football player to be drafted into the NFL. He received a degree in physical education. Triplett played in the NFL for two seasons with the Detroit Lions and set a single-game NFL record of 294 returning yards that lasted for 44 years.

Triplett is often credited for inspiring Penn State’s famed “We Are!” slogan, which was later popularized by Penn State’s cheerleaders in the late 70s and early 80s. As the legend goes, Triplett and Black teammate Dennie Hoggard were initially unable to play in Penn State’s 1948 Cotton Bowl matchup with SMU. As rumors swirled about Penn State meeting with SMU about potentially playing without Triplett and Hoggard, team captain Steve Suhey is believed to have said, “We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.” Triplett and Hoggard played and were the first Black players to ever appear in the Cotton Bowl. Triplett scored the game-tying touchdown in the 13-13 draw and later joined the Cotton Bowl’s Hall of Fame.

Mary E. Godfrey

Godfrey became the first Black full-time faculty member at Penn State back in 1956. She began teaching as an assistant professor of art education and retired two decades later in 1979.

Cynthia Baldwin

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Baldwin served as the first African-American president of the Penn State Alumni Association from 1989 to 1991. She was also named a distinguished Penn State alumna in 1995 and an Alumni Fellow in 2000. Additionally, Baldwin was the first elected African-American female chair of the Penn State Board of Trustees in January 2004. She held the position until January 2007.

Baldwin served in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from 2005 until she retired in 2008. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree before earning her law degree from Duquesne.

Guion Bluford

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Guion S. “Guy” Bluford Jr. graduated from Penn State in 1964 with a degree in aerospace engineering. In 1983, Bluford became the first Black astronaut to go to space. He was a member of the crew during the third flight of the Challenger space shuttle.

Bluford was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997 and inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on June 5, 2010. He was later honored at Penn State by having a building in Innovation Park named after him.

Jesse Arnelle

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Arnelle was a former Nittany Lions basketball and football player and an All-American in sports. On the basketball court, Arnelle finished his career as Penn State’s all-time leading scorer with 2,138 points. During his time in school, he was the first Black student government president at Penn State. He graduated in 1955 and later became the first Nittany Lion to play in the NBA. In 1962, he graduated from the Dickinson School of Law and went on to have a successful corporate law career following his service in the Air Force.

In 1968, Arnelle was presented with the first Alumni Association Award, but he publicly declined it while protesting Penn State’s poor minority recruitment. The next year, he became the first Black person elected to Penn State’s Board of Trustees, where he worked on changing and improving the minority recruitment process for the university. In 1996, Arnelle was elected as the first Black chair of the Board of Trustees and served on the board for decades.

Warren Coleman

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Coleman was the first Black coach for any team in Penn State history. He was hired in 1968 as the assistant track and field coach. Coleman coached at Penn State for 25 years and retired in 1993.

He was an athlete himself at Swarthmore High School, graduated from Hampton Institute (Hampton University today), and received his master’s degree in education from Penn State. During his time as a track coach, Coleman was also an assistant physical education professor and known for his radio persona, “The Good Witch Doctor”, on WQWK 97 FM.

Rodney Reed

Reed was the first Black dean at Penn State. In 1990, Penn State recruited him away from UC Berkeley to head the university’s College of Education. He led the school until he retired in 1997.

As dean, Reed made headway and laid the groundwork for more Black faculty. Today, Dr. Clarence Lang serves as dean of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts.

Charles Dumas

(Dumas pictured center-stage)

Dumas is a retired Penn State professor who became the first Black professor emeritus in the School of Theater at Penn State. He was one of the first Black professors at Penn State to receive tenure, become a full professor, and be appointed emeritus. Dumas also directed the first play written by an African-American on a Penn State stage. Along with his teaching career, he is a writer, actor, and longtime political activist.

Lisa Salters

 Allen Kee | ESPN Images

Lisa Salters is a Penn State graduate of 1988 with a degree in broadcast journalism. She was also a member of the women’s basketball team from 1986-87. She is most-known for her work with ESPN and her coverage of various sports, specifically Monday Night Football, NBA games on ESPN and ABC, and co-hosting of ESPN’s documentary series E:60. On February 9, Salters was involved in ESPN’s first all-women-led NBA broadcast.

T’yanna Wallace

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Wallace is a former Penn State student who established a clothing line during her time in college to fill some B.I.G. shoes. She is the eldest daughter of the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls. During her time at Penn State, she created a clothing line in honor of her father called Notoriouss. Wallace graduated in 2015 with a business degree and continues her work as a fashion designer and entrepreneur.

Keegan-Michael Key

Key earned his master’s degree in fine arts and graduated from Penn State in 1996. The actor, screenwriter, comedian, and producer is most likely recognized for his work on his comedy series, “Key & Peele,” in which he co-created and co-starred with Jordan Peele. Recently, he has also been in “Toy Story 4”, “Schmigadoon!”, and will appear in the new “Wonka” film. Key is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning actor. He’s even spent time portraying his “doppelganger,” James Franklin.

James Franklin

Franklin achieved history by becoming the first Black head coach to win a Big Ten title thanks to Penn State’s 2016 Big Ten championship victory. Franklin was named the 16th head coach of the Nittany Lion football program in 2014, becoming Penn State’s first Black head football coach. In 2019, Franklin said, “I don’t usually talk about this publicly, but my goal is to be the first African-American football coach to win a college national championship. That’s something that’s very historic.”

Franklin signed a new 10-year, $70 million contract in November, which will greatly extend his time at Penn State.

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About the Author

Auveonna Perkins

Auveonna Perkins is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. She lives 30 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, and bleeds black and gold without a doubt. She comes from a big sports family and has played a handful of sports herself including basketball, softball, and flag football just to name a few. Besides sports, she loves good food, 80s movies (Cobra Kai Never Dies), and turtles. If you'd like to ask her how to pronounce her name or anything else email her at [email protected].

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