UMD Pioneers Remembered

Dr. Darryll J. Pines became the University of Maryland’s 34th president on July 1, 2020. Among the twelve initiatives he announced on his first day at the helm was his proposed recognition for four UMD pioneers—Hiram Whittle, Elaine Johnson Coates, Pyon Su, and Chunjen Constant Chen. President Pines submitted a request to the Board of Regents to name the two newest dorms on campus, currently under construction, for these outstanding alumni “in honor of their pioneering and trailblazing steps to diversify the University of Maryland student body” and their contributions “to the rich diversity and culture that defines our campus today.” In his announcement, President Pines noted that each of these inspirational individuals “exemplifies Terrapin grit, desire, and determination to succeed against all odds.”

Though their stories may be familiar to many of our readers, we felt it was appropriate to reprise them here in light of President Pines’ request.

Of this group of distinguished alumni, Pyon Su is the earliest graduate and the first Korean to graduate from any American college or university. He received his degree from the Maryland Agricultural College (MAC), as the University of Maryland was then known, in 1891 and even delivered one of the addresses at Commencement that June. Mr. Pyon first came to the United States as part of a diplomatic delegation from Korea. Upon his return home, he was exiled due to a change in political leadership during his absence, and his lands were confiscated. He returned to the U.S. and enrolled in the MAC, focusing his studies on scientific agriculture, the foundation of the early years of the college. He was also active in campus life, helping to found the Rossbourg Club, an early student organization. 

Tragically, Mr. Pyon was killed only a few short months after graduation when he was hit by a train at the College Park railroad crossing the night of October 22, 1891. The Washington Post noted that at the time of his death, he 

“was engaged upon a compilation which would have shown the condition of agriculture in China. He was a careful student and a good linguist and but twenty-eight years of age.”

Mr. Pyon was buried in the St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Beltsville, MD, approximately five miles from campus. 

Chunjen Constant Chen, a native of Shanghai, China, enrolled in the Maryland Agricultural College in 1915. Like Pyon Su, he pursued studies in agriculture, but left after his junior year to transfer to Cornell University, where he completed his undergraduate work in 1919. Mr. Chen returned to the Maryland State College of Agriculture following his graduation and received his master’s degree in agriculture in 1920. Following a career as an associate professor of biology and agriculture at Tsing Hua University in Peking and a stint as an agricultural economist at the Bank of China, he returned to the university in 1952 as a research associate in the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Two years later, he was appointed as an assistant professor and chairman of the Chinese section of the Department of Foreign Languages at the university. At his retirement in 1967, he was named professor emeritus. All four of Mr. Chen’s sons, Ping, Ming, Yi, and Kong, attended UMD. Chunjen Constant Chen passed away in 1978.

Hiram Whittle grew up in Baltimore. Mr. Whittle began his undergraduate studies in mathematics at Morgan State College in September 1948. One year later, he chose to apply for admission as an engineering student at the University of Maryland, then an all-white institution. When he did not receive a response, Mr. Whittle petitioned the Baltimore City Court for a decision on his application without regard to race. He received assistance from the NAACP and lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall and Donald Gaines Murray, the first African American to attend the University of Maryland Law School.

Denied admission in August 1949, he continued his studies at Morgan State while pursuing legal action. On January 31, 1951, the Board of Regents acknowledged that engineering opportunities were not equal between College Park and the Maryland State College at Princess Anne (University of Maryland Eastern Shore), where Mr. Whittle had been referred two years earlier. Considering the circumstances, the Board of Regents voted to admit him to the University of Maryland at College Park.

As UMD’s first African American undergraduate student, Mr. Whittle pursued coursework in Engineering Mechanics and Drawing, as well as Sociology and Government and Politics. He left the university in June 1952 without completing his degree. He briefly relocated to New York City to continue his education but returned to Baltimore in 1955. He initially worked in a grocery store, then served as a draftsman for city engineering consultants. Mr. Whittle has been employed by the city of Baltimore since 1967, and still works full-time, at age 89, as a title records assistant. He is a lifelong and devout Jehovah’s Witness and generously donates his free time to serve his religious community.

At the May 2020 virtual commencement ceremony, the University of Maryland announced that Mr. Whittle will receive an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree. University officials hope to award this degree in person at the December graduation ceremony.

Elaine Johnson Coates entered the University of Maryland in fall 1955 and, four years later, became the first African American woman to earn an undergraduate degree at UMD. Coming from Baltimore’s segregated Frederick Douglass High School, Mrs. Coates’ guidance counselor discouraged her from considering college and refused to write a letter of recommendation. Mrs. Coates overcame this to realize her dream of attending college. Once she was on campus, Mrs. Coates found living in Caroline Hall “very lonely at first. Some girls would speak to me in the dorm, but when they got outside, I guess because of peer pressure, it was a very different thing.”  She also encountered unequal treatment in the classroom, finding that her white classmates often received higher grades for similar work. Mrs. Coates persisted, however, noting as she looked back on her studies at Maryland, “I had a plan and I had a purpose. I wanted to do something that had never been done in my family … I wanted to make my family and my church proud of me, and those whose shoulders I was standing on were very strong.” 

After earning a degree from the College of Education, Mrs. Coates began a long career in social work and teaching. Her two children also graduated from Maryland.

In spring 2019, the Alumni Association honored Coates with a new award for a graduate who has made a significant contribution that fosters diversity and inclusion—an award named in her honor. Mrs. Coates also addressed the Class of 2019 at Commencement. “I stand upon this podium and look out at the diversity in the beautiful faces of this graduating class, and it tells me that my journey mattered,” she said.

Mrs. Coates, shown here at the Commencement ceremony, will also receive an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree, as announced during the May 2020 Commencement ceremony. University officials hope to award this degree in person at December graduation.

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