The contributions of the Black community to technology history are only just beginning to be recognized, with “hidden figures” such as NASA’s Katherine Johnson finally receiving the accolades they deserve. Another tech pioneer that should be a household name is Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis, the first African American to receive a PhD in computer science.

Ellis was born in 1943 and grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he was first exposed to computers at age 15 working a graveyard security shift. His employer had just purchased a punch card computer, and while Ellis was not allowed to touch it, he was allowed to spend his long hours reading the computer manual. This meant Ellis could teach the company’s employees how to reuse old punch cards when they ran out.

His self-taught computer expertise led him to receive a scholarship in 1960 from Beloit College, only 100 miles from home but miles away in terms of community. Ellis’ experiences as the only Black student were isolating and contributed to his lifelong passion for civil rights (in 1963, he attended the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech).

At Beloit, Ellis and his chemistry professor were tasked with setting up a computer donated to the campus, and just as he had thrown himself into his studies, he threw himself into establishing the computer lab—even sleeping overnight in the lab after a late night.

Post-grad contributions to computer science

After graduating from Beloit in 1964 with a double major in mathematics and physics, Ellis attended the University of Illinois, where he worked on the ILLIAC IV supercomputer. He earned his doctorate in computer science in 1969 and then began a 40-plus year in academia, with time at Stanford, the University of Texas, MIT, the Stevens Institute of Technology and ultimately the University of Colorado at Boulder.

From 1976 to 1984, he worked at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he led the group that developed OfficeTalk, a system that allowed a network of computer users to function as a “communal computing system” (Think of this as the grandfather of Google Docs). He also was passionate about teaching in developing countries and had a close relationship with Ashesi University in Ghana.

Ellis passed away unexpectedly in 2014 at age 71. In a February 2002 journal article, Ellis explained the barriers he faced as a Black student. No one encouraged him to pursue advanced courses.

“Instead, the message at that time was, ‘well, you have taken one basic math class and you passed, so you don’t need to take any more math. You’ll get better grades if you don’t stretch yourself,’” Ellis said. “People put together an image of what I was supposed to be. So, I always tell my students to push.”

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I loved the article. I grew up in Beloit, so it was nice to hear of a local student achieve great heights. Great lesson in not allowing others to put limitations on you.

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  2. Avatar

    I love this inspirational story. I hadn’t heard of Dr. Clarence Ellis before. Thank you for telling his story.

    Reply

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