The Charlie L. Yates Legacy Foundation was launched in 2021 to honor and celebrate the achievements of Charlie Lee Yates, the first Black graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute...
Charlie L. Yates was born on a tobacco farm in Harrellsville, NC in 1936. From an early age, he displayed an affinity for math and science, outpacing his peers at Booker T. Washington High School. Despite his talent, Yates was uncertain of his future because professional opportunities in the science field were incredibly limited for Blacks. But with the help of his favorite teacher, John Perry, Yates identified engineering as his career path.
Once he set his sights on becoming an engineer, Yates would not take no for an answer. With the help and guidance of Mr. Perry, Yates chose Virginia Polytechnic Institutes as his destination for post-secondary education. Perry was instrumental in guiding Yates around Virginia’s admission rules that restricted black students from attending predominantly white institutions. While the Tech administration strongly discouraged his attendance, Yates forged ahead with his goals. Eventually, they accepted his application in light of the state’s separate but equal rule that allowed Black students to attend a white institution when a Historically Black College/University did not offer the student’s desired program.
In 1954, Yates enrolled in the School of Engineering, met with continued obstacles. He was not allowed to participate fully in campus life. However, he did not let the restrictions to reside or dine on-campus deter him. Instead, he found a supportive network in the town of Blacksburg. Yates took great pride in his academic performance. After matriculating through four years of Mechanical Engineering coursework, Yates graduated, with honors in June 1958, becoming the first Black graduate in Virginia Tech’s 86 year history and the first Black graduate of any southern engineering school at that time. Yates continued his educational excellence by earning a Master’s in Chemical Engineering from California Polytechnic University a year later. He went on to earn his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
Yates’ story would not be complete without the recognition of his mentor, John Perry. Mr. Perry earned the gratitude of Yates by encouraging him to think beyond his current environment and see the possibility of achieving much more. Yates would eventually find his way back to his alma mater as a professor in 1979 after a career start at Westinghouse and 19 years at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. He also was involved in the development of Hampton University’s engineering program. He loved making an impact on student’s growth and development in much the way Mr. Perry had encouraged him.
Virginia Tech recognized Yates’ contribution to the university by naming a dormitory in his honor. The Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall is named for the first Black student admitted and the first to graduate and serves as a learning community focused on diversity. Current administration has prioritized creating a diverse student learning environment through increased recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented student populations. Dr. Charlie L. Yates succumbed to lymphoma in 2011, but his legacy lives on through the many students who have followed his lead. This foundation honors his legacy by funding a scholarship to support the diversity of students seeking STEM educational opportunities.
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