Fifty years ago, the late trailblazer became Texas Tech's first African-American graduate.
Originally published May 16, 2014
In the spring of 1964, Ophelia Powell-Malone received her degree from Texas Tech University. None of her fellow graduates looked like her, but on that day Ophelia blazed a trail.
Ophelia was the first African-American to receive a bachelor's degree from Texas Tech. She received a degree in home economics with a concentration in home nursing and health care.
“She was independent, and when her mind was made up, her mind was made up,” Maurice Powell said of his late sister. “She truly believed that anyone can make anything of themselves if they want to succeed. She wanted to prove to others that if she could graduate in spite of her conditions, then anyone can.”
Texas Tech became integrated in 1961 after several federal court cases ruled students could not be denied admission on the basis of their race. Despite resistance—a Daily Toreador article from February 1955 reports that during a student debate, 35 percent of the student/faculty audience was against integration—the Texas Tech Board of Directors voted to consider all applicants to the university equally.
“The number of those who will not object [to integration] is likely to be far greater than one might think,” Avalanche-Journal columnist Chas. A. Guy stated at the time. “Most people—including some of those who are the hottest against all forms of integration—realize that it already has come in many places, including much of Texas, and that before long, it will be universal. In short, butting one's head against a brick wall in this, as well as in other incidences, is never an inviting activity.”
Maurice said his family, along with supportive administrators, faculty and students, helped make his sister's dream possible.
“If she were alive today, I think Ophelia would be profoundly honored that the university
has made efforts for students of all colors to succeed, especially through Mentor
Tech.” - Darrell Powell
Ophelia wanted to be a nurse all her life. Maurice recalled one day during his childhood when his sister came back to the family home in Littlefield from Texas Tech in her white nurse's uniform.
“I am a nurse and they cannot take that away from me,” she said. “I'm going to show it everywhere I go. I am a nurse.”
Leaving a Legacy
Ophelia was born near Austin in 1931. She graduated from Anderson High School and studied at Huston-Tillotson College before transferring to Texas Tech. Upon graduation from Texas Tech, she worked in Coldspring, Texas and Hobbs, N.M., in the public schools, at Langston University as a dietician, and in nursing homes in Houston and Lubbock.
Ophelia had one son, Leslie K. Malone. She passed away Sept. 2, 1979, at the age of 48, but her legacy lives on.
The Lauro Cavazos & Ophelia Powell-Malone Mentoring Program (Mentor Tech) is named in part for Ophelia. Cory Powell (who is not related to the Ophelia Powell-Malone family) is co-founder and director of the program as well as a Texas Tech alumnus. He said Ophelia's impact on students in the program as well as the university cannot be overstated.
“It is important that we recognize that we owe Ophelia Powell-Malone for proving that it was possible for people like me—a first-generation college student and African-American coming from an urban background—to graduate from college and succeed in my career,” Cory said. “There were no services like Mentor Tech when she was here, but she made it. We can now help students traverse the path that must have been so scary for her.”
Mentor Tech seeks to enhance the quality of the educational experience of students from underrepresented populations through programs, services, advocacy, and campus and community involvement. The program pairs students with faculty and staff members to assist them in their academic, social and cultural adjustments to Texas Tech.
More than 2,100 students have been served through the program. In the last eight years, nearly 800 Mentor Tech participants have graduated from Texas Tech and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. The program's participating student average retention rate (86 percent) is higher than the university's overall rate, and the program has awarded close to $100,000 in scholarships since its inception.
Cory said Ophelia's older brother William donated the first funds to establish scholarships for Texas Tech students in honor of his sister. Although William passed away last year, his son Darrell said Ophelia would be incredibly happy and proud to see Mentor Tech flourishing.
“To have a program like this, certainly, is not just a step but a leap forward in progress, ensuring that students not only get in but that they get in and graduate with a sense of purpose and service not only to their community and to their nation,” Darrell said. “Ultimately, that is the direction of the program and it's what my parents and aunt did with their lives.”
“I am a nurse and they cannot take that away from me,”
- Ophelia Powell-Malone
Darrell said his parents, William and Doris, believed in education: William ultimately served as dean of students at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins after a long career in science education, and Doris served as a school counselor for Houston, Lubbock, Nacogdoches and Levelland school districts. Doris followed Ophelia as one of the first African-American graduates from Texas Tech when she received a master's degree in education. She passed away in 2010.
“My mother took the tools that she learned at Texas Tech and used that to go into the homes of students and help counsel them and steer them on a path to excellence by encouraging them to remain in school and stay focused on education,” Darrell said. “She would not have had that opportunity if it weren't for Texas Tech and for the opportunity that Ophelia helped create. I am profoundly grateful.”
Blazing a Trail for Others
Today, Texas Tech has increased its recruitment and retention of underrepresented students through programs like Mentor Tech. In 2012, the Education Trust published a study that analyzed college enrollment data from 2004-2010. Texas Tech was recognized for closing the graduation gap between Hispanic and white students, and was ranked ninth in the “Top 25 Gainers in Black Student Graduation Rates among Public Institutions, 2004-2010,” increasing its graduation rate among African-Americans by more than 18 percentage points.
President M. Duane Nellis said Ophelia's success paved the way for progress at Texas Tech.
“We have pride for each and every one of our graduates,” Nellis said. “Ophelia Powell-Malone, through her efforts and successes both as a student and in her career, serves as a shining example that from here, it's possible.”
Darrell said that in terms of diversity in higher education, the education system still has ways to go. In spite of this, he said Ophelia would be pleased that programs like Mentor Tech exist to help students overcome difficulties like she encountered in her education.
“If she were alive today, I think Ophelia would be profoundly honored that the university has made efforts for students of all colors to succeed, especially through Mentor Tech,” Darrell said. “My aunt would certainly recognize that when she was going to school that opportunity would not have necessarily have been there for her, although there were certainly people who helped and encouraged her along the way.”
“Mentors can play a significant role in students' success or failure because often they are driven by sheer willpower as well as their intellectual capabilities. Sometimes students fall by the wayside simply because personal issues begin to interfere with their academic life. The fact that Mentor Tech is there and able to help students navigate issues, remain calm and understand they aren't facing issues alone is an indication that the university has made great strides in providing assistance to students of color and to all students.”
For Cory, who has grown close to Ophelia's family throughout the years, remembering her not only helps to recognize Texas Tech's past, but also gives students today an example for how to go forward in their lives.
“I feel very blessed to have known people who could tell me what things were like for African-Americans before my time at Texas Tech, to have my own experiences, and to be able to contribute to the students today and for future generations by making things better for them,” Cory said. “I am hopeful that students today can learn and lead by Ophelia's example.”