In September 1949, Elbert C. Wisner transferred to the University of Delaware from the University of Colorado, entering the School of Engineering. While a single transfer student may not seem noteworthy today, Wisner’s entrance to the university marked an important change. He was the first African American undergraduate student to enroll in the University of Delaware in the 20th century.
For much of the University of Delaware’s history, the institution did not admit African American students. Delaware State University had been established by the Delaware Legislature in 1891 as the state’s college for black students. Delaware State provided several degree and preparatory programs but did not offer graduate degrees or undergraduate work in fields such as engineering. Beginning in the late 1940s, the president and some trustees of the University of Delaware received letters from various individuals and groups like the NAACP within the state seeking admission for African American students into graduate and engineering programs at the university.
At a special meeting in January 1948, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees met to discuss applications by African American students in light of these letters and of a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court. In the case of Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the court held that if white colleges offered coursework and degrees that were not offered in black colleges in states where segregation was practiced, then black students must be permitted to apply to and enroll in those programs at the segregated white institutions.
In response to this ruling, the trustees adopted a resolution to permit the matriculation of black Delawareans “to pursue a course of study … leading to a certain degree for which a course of study leading to the same degree is not furnished in any educational institution provided by this State within this State ….” This decision opened the School of Engineering, the Summer School, Academic Extension, and graduate programs to any qualified Delaware African American student.
An electrical engineering major, Wisner was the only black undergraduate student on campus during his first year at the university. He roomed with a family on New London Road in Newark’s African American community because there were no accommodations for him in the dormitories. As a student, Wisner joined Alpha Phi Omega, a national service fraternity still operating on campus. He also played clarinet and alto saxophone with a dance band on campus before forming his own group, the Elbert Wisner Orchestra, which played at campus social functions.
Wisner graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and was employed as a civilian electronic engineer for the U.S. Army. He then attended Rutgers University in New Jersey, earning an M.B.A. in 1973. After retiring as an engineer, Mr. Wisner pursued a second career as president and senior partner in SBS Consultants, a management-consulting firm, and as principal management specialist with SEMCOR Inc., also a management-consulting firm.
An active alumnus, Wisner was involved with the RISE program in the College of Engineering and served as a member of the college’s steering committee for the Campaign for Delaware. He was elected to the Alumni Wall of Fame in 1988, was the featured speaker at Winter Commencement in 1989, and was presented with the University’s Medal of Distinction in 2002. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 80.