Joseph Douglas

This profile of Joseph Douglas originally ran in the Feb. 25, 2002, York Daily Record.

In 1962, the civil rights movement approached a crescendo, and racial tension plagued the South.

Joseph Douglas, who was living in Louisiana, decided to move his family to a safer environment.

Douglas had graduated from Purdue University in 1948, and he was the first black engineer to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1962, he was teaching at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he had helped to establish the electrical engineering department.

He began sending resumes in 1963. At the time, AMF was looking for engineers in Connecticut.

He went to the interview, but he soon learned the company wanted him to work in York.

“I got here on a stroke of fate,” Douglas said. “I had for many years wanted to work in Pennsylvania . . . but never had a specific invitation.”

He took the position and has been here ever since.

He was the first black faculty member of Penn State’s engineering school, and later served as associate dean of Penn State’s Commonwealth campuses.

He also was a professor of electrical engineering at Penn State’s York and Capital campuses.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

“My proudest accomplishment remains landing my first job in engineering in July of 1948,” Douglas said.

“I say that because I had written to many companies before graduating and kept getting ‘no’ back as soon as they found out I was black. The industry was not ready to take on black engineers in 1948.

“I heard that the government was beginning to soften up somewhat, so I sent an application to the Department of Agriculture and got a telegram back. They were interested.”

A local field engineer was sent to his house to interview him.

After Douglas accepted the position, he read his personnel file and discovered the field engineer had written in his report, “He’s a fine engineer, but he’s black.”

What makes a hero?

“A hero is one who is held at high esteem by an admirer for the types of things he or she does and the unselfish manner in which those things are done,” Douglas said. “And, often, a hero is successful at what is being attempted. You can be a hero and fail at it, but at least you’ve attempted it.”

Do you consider yourself to be a hero?

“Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t,” Douglas said. “To maintain my modesty, . . . I’ve learned that many people think of me as a hero.”

Who is your hero?

“I’ve got two of them outside of my relatives. I call one historical and that is Lewis Latimer. He was a black inventor who worked with Thomas Edison. He couldn’t get a job with the industry, but Edison was a reformer on his own and when he saw someone who had ability, he went out and got him,” Douglas said.

His personal hero is a former teacher from high school.

“Alvalon C. Cox — he was my science teacher,” Douglas said. “I did all of my schoolwork — elementary through high school in a segregated school system in the North. He was a black man. One of the best high schools in town. When people segregate us, they are forced to do the best they can.”

What affect did you have on York County or on your profession?

“My encouraging teaching methods in an engineering setting at Penn State Campus, York County, had considerable impact in the 1970s. In 1972, I was awarded the Christian Lindbach Outstanding University Teaching Award, one of two given that year throughout the entire university.”

Who or what is your inspiration?

“I’m inspired by black leaders who have done their best under extremely difficult circumstances, and some of those leaders are nowadays put down by people,” Douglas said.

Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver are two of Douglas’ inspirations.

What is your favorite York County memory?

“My favorite York County memory (is) getting congratulatory letters from York City and county administrators at the times of my university teaching award and appointment to associate dean position,” Douglas said.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give or have ever gotten?

“I was told in college that I should be more positive and assertive. I should try to inspire confidence. It did kind of open my eyes,” Douglas said.

If you could change one thing about your life or something you did, what would it be?

“I would have been happier in my life if my father had been more active in my life. My mother and father were divorced when I was 4 years old,” Douglas said.



Occupation: Retired from Penn State, Capital Campus, as an electrical engineering professor. He also taught at Penn State York.

Born: Oct. 31, 1926

Birthplace: Indianapolis, Ind.

Current home: Springettsbury Township

Marital status: Married to Edna Douglas

Children: Four children

Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.; master’s degree in electrical engineering from University of Missouri.



Help wanted!

We would welcome biographical details for this person.

Click to contribute

Please note that if you employ Spam Assassin, or similar email blockers, then you must ensure that you can receive emails from


Click here to 
Print this page

Biography finder





























Index of first names