George W. Owens – Owens Hall
By Maurice B. Jones
George Washington Owens (1875-1950) was born on January 21, 1875 on a farm near Alma, Kansas. Both of his parents were former slaves who came to Kansas, settling in Wabaunsee County where they obtained 50 acres of free public land to start a farm, where Owens often worked. He attended the local district schools near Alma, where at times he, his brothers, and his sisters were the only African American pupils in school. In the winter he attended school when possible, while in the summer he worked on local farms caring for the livestock. George Owens came to be quite a local celebrity, because he was the winner of spelling contests all over the region. He was considered very apt and ambitious, eager to learn, ready to read any literature to which he had access, even old books, papers and journals. He also read all the histories he could secure, ancient, medieval or current.
After graduating from District School #3, he then took the local examination for a teacher’s certificate. In 1894, his mother passed away from cancer. After receiving his certificate, with high grades, and on the advice of a high school teacher he moved to Manhattan, Kansas in 1896 to attend Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University). Owens wrote in his autobiography, "So in Jan 1-1896 I went to Manhattan...and enrolled as a student. I found to my surprise that I was the only colored student enrolled in the college, and that they had never had a colored graduate so I resolved to be the first. I finally succeeded but suffered much hardship."
Owens was an accomplished student and by all accounts he was accepted as a peer and engaged in numerous college activities. For example, as a member of the Webster Literary Society, Owens was one of seven students whose photographs and presentations at the organization's annual program in March 1899 were published in the college newspaper, the Students' Herald. The speech presented by Owens was entitled, "The Right to be Understood." Referring to the Civil War, Owens remarked, "While we regard the rebellion of the South a folly, we must not forget that the southern people also earnestly believed that they were right. A mutual understanding might have accomplished the emancipation reform peaceably." Although he struggled to work his way through college on the school's farm and as a janitor, Owens graduated with a bachelor's degree in general science in June 1899. His senior thesis was titled "The Dairy Farm as an Index to Character."
Not only did he become Kansas State University's first black student to graduate, but he also graduated with distinction and took just three-and-a-quarter years to earn his degree. Two years later in 1901, Ms. Minnie Howell earned the distinction of becoming Kansas State University’s first black female graduate. Mrs. Minnie Howell Champe taught high school home economics on the campus of Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (Virginia State University) from 1925-1928.
In the summer of 1899 Owens made a trip to Oklahoma as a harvest hand, working in the field and later with the threshing crews. Later in August 1899, he spent 3 or 4 weeks working in the creamery at the Iowa State Agricultural College at Ames (now Iowa State University), learning dairy management and organization. He also took special work in butter and cheese making.
In September of 1899, he received a letter from Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama, offering him a position under George Washington Carver, head of the agriculture department, he became lifelong friends with both of them.
At Tuskegee Institute he was in charge of the dairy herd and the production of all dairy products. He was able to introduce many new features in the areas of management, feeding and breeding. He discovered and used more balanced and economic feeding for livestock. He also introduced the use of silage as a dairy feed, along with cotton seed meal, which was used as a base for concentrates. In 1900, while at Tuskegee he met the beautiful and accomplished Waddie L. Hill, a graduate of Clark University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta. They married in 1901 and had four children; Emma, George Jr., Ana and a boy who died in 1902. All three children graduated from Virginia State College.
In 1908 George Owens was invited to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (now Virginia State University) where he would also be put in charge of all operations concerning the school's dairy. He used a reference from Earnest Nichols, President of Kansas State Agricultural College, to assist him with obtaining the appointment.
In 1908, Owens accepted the position and helped establish the Agriculture Department at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. He also became a prominent leader in vocational agriculture in Virginia and the South. Owens helped establish vocational agriculture programs throughout Virginia. After establishing the first five black departments of vocational agriculture under Virginia State Board for Vocational Education, he was officially designated as head teacher-trainer in agricultural education in 1920. One year later, his wife Waddie passed away in 1921.
In May 1927 Owens and others formed "The New Farmers of Virginia" which was later renamed “The New Farmers of America", a national youth organization, that later merged
with Future Farmers of America in 1965. The overall purpose of this organization was to encourage young black men to improve their vocational skills at work, on the farm, other educational activities, and also their social life as connected to work. Owens wrote the constitution and by-laws for the organization.
Owens left his duties as head of the agricultural department at Virginia State in 1927 to devote his entire time to the rapidly growing number of departments of vocational agriculture in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Owens "was progressive, not boastful, loved his work and made untold sacrifices to promote its progress," a colleague wrote. "He never discussed people but advanced ideas."
After 37 years of service to the Commonwealth of Virginia, Owens retired in 1945. He passed away five years later on May 9, 1950 at the age of 75. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and a vestryman at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Petersburg, VA. He is buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.
In 2013, during Kansas State University's 150th anniversary, the university celebrated and honored Owens and Champe, University archives staff members researched the lives of Owens and Champe, delving into records and interviewing family members.
In honor of Owens, the Owens’ soybean was developed jointly by the VSU Agricultural Research Station (ARS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-ARS and was released on May 8, 2003 as a vegetable soybean cultivar.
In recognition of his service and establishing the Department of Agriculture, a new agricultural building was named Owens Hall in 1932 in his honor.
The George Washington Owens Papers, 1944-12, Special Collections and Archives, Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA
Crawford, T. (2012, February 23). K-State Keepsakes: Celebrating Our First Black Graduates. Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://ksulib.typepad.com/talking/2012/02/k-state-keepsakes-celebrating-the-first-black-graduates.html
Davis, T. (2013, January 16). University's sesquicentennial celebrates story of the first black graduates. http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/jan13/blkgrads11613.html
Mebrahtu, T., Devine, T., Donald, P., & Abney, T. (2007). Registration of ‘Owens’ Vegetable Soybean. Journal of Plant Registrations, 1(2), 95-95.
Seals, Anthony J. "The Black Graduate." K-Stater (Vol. 8, June 1977), p. 2-4.
Seals, Anthony J. "George Washington Owens." Minorities Resource and Research Center Newsletter, Farrell Library, Kansas State University. April 1977.