Yvonne Young (Y.Y.) Clark, P.E., F.SWE, died Jan. 27, 2019, at age 89. The Society’s first African-American member, Clark joined in 1952, just one year following her graduation from Howard University, where she was the first woman to earn a degree in mechanical engineering.
Continuing to blaze new trails, Clark became the first female faculty member in the College of Engineering and Technology at Tennessee State University, and the first woman to receive a master’s degree in engineering management from Vanderbilt University.
Active in SWE, she served in many capacities, including the executive committee, predecessor to the board of directors. She participated in the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES), which was organized by SWE and held in New York City, in June 1964. The event brought together women engineers and scientists from around the world.
Clark’s path forward was not without obstacles. She recalled that during her senior year at Howard, certain company recruiters came to campus and made it clear during interviews that they would not hire a woman. Nevertheless, she went to work for Frankford Arsenal Gauge Labs in Philadelphia, later moving to the electronic tubes division of Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in Montclair, New Jersey, where she designed electrical equipment.
When she married William F. “Bill” Clark Jr. in 1955, she returned to the South, where she had difficulty finding employment until being hired by Tennessee State University. Her 55-year tenure there earned her the title “TSU’s First Lady of Engineering.” She taught mechanical engineering, served as department chair twice, and also as freshman advisor for all students entering the engineering program.
During the summers Clark worked elsewhere, including NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, where she investigated hot-spot issues on the Saturn 5 rocket booster engines. Clark also worked on the moon rock samples container, for transporting moon rocks back to Earth, at the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.
Clark found herself at the center of a pivotal moment when the 1958 annual convention (as it was referred to at the time) was held in Houston. The convention organizers had informed the hotel in advance that SWE was a racially integrated organization, and had been assured that Clark would be welcome. When she arrived, however, she was denied a room and entrance to the convention — completely legal in those pre-civil-rights days. SWE threatened to pull the event, but she insisted that it be held, and so a compromise was reached with the hotel: Clark could attend the convention but would spend the nights at her aunt and uncle’s residence in Houston. She had to be escorted at all times by another SWE member, so whenever anyone had to go anywhere in the hotel, Clark would accompany them — a response to the management’s racism that ironically made her much more visible than if she had been allowed to participate normally.
Looking back in an oral history interview, Clark said that despite the injustice, she and the rest of SWE “had a ball.” And SWE adopted the policy not to hold conventions in the South again until after civil rights laws were passed, to ensure that all members would be welcome and protected.
Forty years later, in 1998, SWE held another conference in Houston. This time, Clark received an apology for her treatment in 1958 and was given a plaque and key to the city. At that same conference, Clark was honored as SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator.
Named a SWE Fellow in 1984, Clark received numerous other awards, including the President’s Distinguished University Award from Tennessee State for 50 years of loyalty, dedication, and determination during her academic career. She retired from the university in 2011.
In several interviews, Clark described her responses to instances of racism and sexism over the course of her life, noting that, “if you roll with the punches and you don’t wear other people’s problems, you can make it with a smile. But when you start worrying about other people and their problems, it just — it hurts you.”
Clark was preceded in death by her husband of 39 years, Bill Clark, and is survived by her brother and his wife; her children, Milton Hebert Clark Sr. and daughter Carol Yvonne Lawson, and son-in-law Eric Lawson; and two grandchildren.
The celebration of her life service was Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Nashville. Contributions in her memory may be made to the Tennessee State University Y.Y. Clark Annual Engineering Scholarship Fund.
— Anne Perusek, SWE Director of Editorial and Publications
- SWE Archives
- Jordan, Diann. Sisters in Science, Conversations with Black Women Scientists on Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science. Purdue University Press, 2006.