John Brooks Slaughter Biography
Experienced Segregation, Developed Early Interest in Engineering, Advanced Working for the U.S. Government
Electrical engineer, physicist
Dr. John Slaughter's career has in many ways traveled a wide circle, leading him from the radio repair shop that helped pay his college tuition, to high-tech electrical engineering jobs, and then back to school as the president of two nationally respected colleges. His most recent job, the presidency of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) makes the circle complete. As the largest provider of scholarships for African American, Latino, and Native American students, NACME's mission is to increase the number of minorities in engineering. Slaughter is now in a position to fulfill his own mission—to help students who, like young John Slaughter, have little money or support from mainstream society, but have a fierce desire to learn engineering technology.
Slaughter was born in Topeka, Kansas, on March 16, 1934. His father, Reuben Brooks Slaughter, was a resourceful, hard-working man who held a variety of jobs to support his family, from selling used furniture to custodial work. Slaughter's mother, Dora Reeves Slaughter, worked in the home taking care of young John and his three sisters, as well as doing occasional domestic work to contribute to the family income. Reuben Slaughter had been born in Alabama. He had come to Kansas to work in the coal mines and met Dora Reeves, whose family had lived in Topeka for several generations. After Dora and Reuben married, they lived and raised their children in the Reeves family home.
Though Kansas was a racially segregated state during the 1930s and 1940s, the Slaughters lived in a mostly white neighborhood, and young John and his sisters had both white and black friends. He attended an all-black elementary school, but his junior high and high school were mixed, with about 10 to 15 percent students of color. Though his classes were integrated, extracurricular events, such as sports and parties, were segregated. Slaughter and his friends experienced little overt racial hostility, but they did feel tension within the segregated system. "The black and white kids on the block would all start out walking to school together, but the white children went to a separate school, much closer to our homes. We would say goodbye, then proceed to Buchanan, the all-black school. We'd meet up again on the way home and often get into little fights. It was like we knew something was wrong. Then, later, we'd all play ball together," Slaughter told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).
It was in Topeka, Kansas, that the court case that ended segregation would begin, in 1952, the year after John Slaughter graduated from Topeka High School. His first cousin, Lucinda Todd, an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was instrumental in the successful outcome of the case that became famous as Brown versus the Board of Education.
Developed Early Interest in Engineering
Slaughter enjoyed school and looked forward to going to class. He loved reading, played baseball, and ran track. He developed his interest in engineering early, making many of his own toys. Fascinated to learn how things worked, he took his bicycle apart and put it back together every week. He read Popular Mechanics regularly, devoting many hours to building the cameras, radios, and other electronic devices he found in the magazine. By the time he was in eighth grade, he knew he wanted to be an engineer.
During his senior year in high school, Slaughter found a practical use for his hobby. He had taught himself to repair radios, and his father helped him set up a shop in his back yard. As a radio repairman, he not only honed his electrical skills, he earned the money for his higher education.
Though his family had little history of attending college, it seemed natural to Slaughter to pursue his education. Because teachers assumed that black students would not go on to college, they were frequently tracked into vocational courses. Upon graduation, Slaughter realized that he had not taken many of the science and math courses he needed for college, so he went to a local liberal arts college to take the classes he lacked. After two years at Washburn University, Slaughter was accepted into the engineering program at Kansas State University. He graduated in 1956 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.
While still at Kansas State, he was offered a job at Convair, an aircraft manufacturing division of General Dynamics Corporation. The job would require moving to San Diego, California, which pleased Slaughter for two reasons. First, he felt that opportunities for advancement in technical engineering fields would be greater in California. Second, his girlfriend Ida Johnson had taken a teaching job in San Diego. Slaughter took the job at Convair, and he and Ida were married that year. While working at Convair, Slaughter returned to school, taking classes at night to earn his master's degree. Though it was not easy to go to school while working full time, Slaughter loved school and was always happiest when studying.
Advanced Working for the U.S. Government
In 1960, he left his job at Convair and went to work as a civilian at the United States Naval Electronics Laboratory Center in San Diego. He worked for the Navy for 15 years, becoming director of the Information Systems Technology Department, and earning his PhD in engineering science. Much of Slaughter's work for the Navy involved developing automatic control systems, the built-in computer controls that operate within aircraft and on ships, such as radar, navigation, and missile systems. He was among the first engineers to use digital computers to control large electromechanical devices.
In 1975, Slaughter was offered the job of director of the Applied Laboratory, a U.S. Navysupported research and development at the University of Washington in Seattle. He took the job and moved with his family to Bellevue, Washington, happy to be working in the university environment. After two years at the University of Washington, Slaughter received his next job through presidential appointment.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named John Slaughter as assistant director of the Astronomical, Atmospheric, Earth and Ocean Sciences directorate of the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. The NSF is the major funder for scientific research at college and university laboratories throughout the United States.
After two years on the east coast, Slaughter returned to Washington, this time to take the job of academic vice president and provost at Washington State University in the eastern part of the state. It was the first time he had been part of a college administration, and he liked the work very much. He began to feel that his experience as an African American student in a field that had long been dominated by whites could enable him to influence the direction of the university in a very positive way. However, he remained at WSU for only a year before an historical presidential appointment led him to change jobs again.
In 1980, Slaughter became the first African American to be appointed to direct the National Science Foundation. Though he was reluctant at first to leave his job at Washington State, he was unable to refuse a personal request from President Carter. Once again, he found working in the nation's capitol to be stimulating, and he enjoyed supporting academic scientific research, especially at historically black colleges and universities.
Held Top University Position
In 1982, he left the NSF to return to the academic world he loved. He became chancellor, or president, of the University of Maryland. There, he was again able to exert a positive influence on the school's development. The University of Maryland had been a segregated, all-white school until 1954. Even in 1982, when Slaughter took over as chancellor, little had been done to increase diversity among the students and faculty. During Slaughter's years at Maryland, from 1982 until 1988, he made a determined effort to introduce the idea that diversity was a positive and necessary element of any first-rate university. One of his proudest accomplishments would be the rating of the University of Maryland as a leader in diversity among major American universities.
One of the elements of college administration that appealed the most to Slaughter was the opportunity to know students and assist them personally. His next career move would be guided by this desire. In 1988 he took the job of president of Occidental College, a small, largely white, liberal arts college in Los Angeles, California. While over thirty thousand students had attended the University of Maryland, Occidental had a student body of only 1600. Though never officially segregated, minorities had not been drawn to Occidental, partly because it was an expensive private college, and partly because it had no diversity programs aimed at encouraging minority enrollment. During his 11 years at Occidental, Slaughter's programs transformed the school into a much more diverse reflection of the city that is its home. Like the University of Maryland, Occidental became a model of diversity and was named the most diverse liberal arts college in America.
In 1999 Slaughter retired from the presidency of Occidental. However, complete retirement has not come easily to the tireless engineer, administrator, and academic. That same year he took a teaching chair at the University of Southern California, passing on his own experiences by teaching courses in diversity and leadership.
But within a year, he received another call that he simply could not refuse. The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering offered him the position of president and chief executive officer. NACME's mission of increasing the number of engineers of color was so close to Slaughter's own personal mission that he found the job irresistible. While maintaining the family home in California, he moved to Stamford, Connecticut, to help NACME in its effort to provide scholarships for African American, Native American, and Latino students. In this way, Slaughter can offer a helping hand to all the children of color who spend their weekends taking things apart to see how they work and dream of creating new technologies.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 1988, pp. A23-5; July 2, 1999, pp. A33-5.
Jet, April 25, 1988, p. 25.
Meet the Press, June 29, 1986, pp. 1-10.
Science, August 1, 1980, pp. 569-71.
Washington Post, November 17, 1987, p. B3.
"John Brooks Slaughter," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (May 19, 2005).
"The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences," Princeton University, www.princeton.edu/∼mcbrown/display/slaughter.html. (May 12, 2005).
NACME, www.nacme.org/ (June 14, 2005).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. John Slaughter on June 14, 2005.
- Bill Slavin (1959-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Member, Writings, Adaptations
- Tom Slaughter (1955-) Biography - Personal, Career, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
- Other Free Encyclopedias