Clarence Ellis’ “First” for African Americans in Computer Science

Posted on 25th February 2010 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out

One of the kids on our street, Khalif, surprised me when, in response to the 2008 Presidential election, he said, “I hate Barack Obama.”

“What???” came my kneejerk reaction. Just a few weeks ago, I knew Khalif was rooting for Obama FTW!

“Because,” Khalif explained, “my teachers were always saying I could grow up to be anything… I wanted to be the first black President.”

This was a witty and insightful comment from one of the brightest kids on the block, and I assured him that being “the first” wasn’t everything, despite the emphasis our culture places on firsts. What’s more important is the climb to the top and the career that follows.

Dr. Skip Ellis
Dr. Skip Ellis
Credit: UoC at Boulder

In 1969, Clarence Ellis became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science. One of five children raised by a single mother on the south side of Chicago, Ellis was introduced to computers in 1958 when, at the age of 15, he got a part-time job as a security guard for an insurance company, guarding the company’s new and expensive computer. Although he was not allowed to operate the computer, he did read all of the operating manuals, which empowered him to play the hero one day when the computer technicians ran out of punch cards to complete an important project, Ellis was able to show them how to reuse old punch cards.

Illiac IV Parallel Computer
Illiac IV Parallel Computer
Credit: Steve Jurvetson

Dr. Ellis’ career includes helping to come up with the idea of clicking on icons to launch programs, a concept without which the majority of today’s users would be helpless to use a computer. At the University of Illinois, Ellis worked with the Illiac 4, one of the world’s first supercomputers. Today he enlightens students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he teaches Groupware, Workflow Systems, and Computer Science, and established a 10-week Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training program. Despite his advanced contributions to the field, Dr. Ellis believes teaching an introductory Computer Science course is very important, especially for students who aren’t majoring in the field, as this science becomes increasingly enmeshed with our daily lives.

Even a half-century later, there are still plenty of “firsts” waiting to be achieved for all Computer Scientists. Unfortunately, according to the 2007-2008 Taulbee Survey, a scant 1.3 percent of current university faculty working in computer science identify as “Black or African-American.” Only 0.7 percent of 2007-2008 full time computer science faculty are black, up from 0.2 percent in the 2001-2002 survey. While the honor of “first African American CS Ph.D” was taken 40 years ago, there is still plenty of room for others to follow Dr. Ellis’ impressive career, and, in doing so, become leaders themselves.

Further Reading:

  • Extraordinary People: Dr. Clarence Ellis from howstuffworks.
  • Black Biography:Clarence A. Ellis from
  • Dr. Scott Williams, Professor of Mathematics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, maintains the website Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora, where he has posted a list of noteworthy African and African American Computer Scientists.

    1. You are so right. Still lots of slots open – that’s a good thing and not so good thing all at once. Thanks for the post….and thank you Dr. Ellis for click-on icons.

      Comment by DNLee — February 25, 2010 @ 2:06 am

    2. […] Clarence Ellis‘ "First" for African Americans in Computer Science …By Clarence Ellis. The Honourable David Thompson Prime Minister, Barbados, West Indies. Excellency,. I have been asked by Mr. Lincoln Lewis, Secretary of … […]

      Pingback by Clanence ellis | Lookrecord — March 31, 2012 @ 11:43 am

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