Josephine Silone Yates, a groundbreaking black woman and STEM educator

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Sep 14, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

Black women in STEM-related fields are vital to the progression of their respective areas of expertise. Like other women of color, black women bring a different perspective to their work due to their varied experiences in life, and black women who pursue careers as STEM educators have been integral in the classroom and in the field.

I first learned about Josephine Silone Yates from my high school science teacher, who also happened to be a black woman. Yates's journey to becoming the first black woman to head a college science department is a testament to just how important educators are in helping students succeed.

Josephine Silone Yates was born in either 1852 or 1858, when slavery was still very much alive in the United States. A resident of Mattituck, New York, she lived with her maternal grandfather, who was a free slave. Her mother taught her how to read and she was rapidly advanced by her teachers in school. When she turned 11, she was sent to live with her uncle in Philadelphia to attend the Institute of Colored Youth, a school with a heavy concentration in classic education and grooming black students for careers as teachers, before attending Rogers High School in Newport, Rhode Island where she was the only black student. Her teachers, however, were still supportive and respectful of her and her education. Her chemistry teacher considered her one of the brightest minds in his classroom and encouraged her to do extra lab work.

She graduated as valedictorian from Rogers High School, initially choosing to forego a university career. She instead attended the Rhode Island State Normal School in Providence and became one of the first certified black teachers in the state, later receiving her master’s degree from the National University of Illinois.


Among other black educators, Yates was one of the first black teachers to be hired at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. The president of the university found it important to replace white faculty with black educators, understanding the importance of having black teachers present and representative for their black students. Even then it was understood that a faculty who could relate to their students was important to a student’s success. Yates was clear in her purpose as an educator, saying in an essay, "The aim of all true education is to give to body and soul all the beauty, strength, and perfection of which they are capable, to fit the individual for complete living." 

Josephine Silone Yates played a significant role in the African-American women’s club movement. She was an advocate for herself and other black women, speaking often about her experiences navigating the society in which she was an afterthought, regardless of how much she had accomplished and contributed as a science educator and department head at a university. She shared her view as a correspondent for the Woman's Era, the very first monthly magazine to be published by black women in the United States. She was also instrumental in establishing women’s clubs for black women, becoming the first president of the Women’s League of Kansas City and then the second president of the National Association of Colored Women. Yates not only inspired future black women to pursue careers in STEM, but she was active in creating safe spaces for other black women as well.

Josephine Silone Yates may have not made what others would consider significant contributions to chemistry by way of research, but her presence as a STEM educator and department head are contributions worth considering, especially for the students who were fortunate enough to be under her guiding light. As a black woman who pursued a degree in a STEM, black women who become teachers and professors, like Yates, have been influential in my life. They’ve been encouraging, understanding, and inspirational.

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