Captain Luther H. Smith

Capt. Luther H. Smith

Luther H. Smith was born in Des Moines, September 27, 1920, and grew up in a loving family with eight siblings. He knew he loved flying from a very young age. When he was 11 years old, he and his brother found $5 in a field. He convinced his brother to use their newfound fortune to pay a pilot to take them on a flight. After this, he would walk 5 miles to and from the airport where he would do odd jobs for anyone who needed it, and hope that they would take him on a flight in appreciation. 

In 1938, Smith enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he studied mechanical engineering. The United States had not yet joined World War II, but at that point it was clear that a large number of pilots would be needed in the near future. As a result, Civilian Pilot Training Programs were established on campuses across the country in 1939. Smith knew that at that point, the U.S. military did not allow African Americans to serve as pilots, but he was determined to be prepared. He joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program and earned his pilot’s license in 1940. He was on of the first Black Americans do to so. 

After joining WWII, the military changed their tune, and allowed Black men to serve as pilots, and in 1942, Smith would enlist in the Army Air Corps in September 1942 and become one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He served in the 332nd Fighter Group of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. Smith joined the war effort in Europe in January of 1944, based out of Italy. By October of that year, he had flown 133 missions.

Smith and his brother Howard on a military base in Italy, 1944.

On October 13, 1944, Smith’s plane, a P-47 Mustang, was hit during an escort mission over Yugoslavia. He would later say of that day “I flew 133 missions. On the last one, I didn’t make it back. It was Friday the 13th. It was my lucky day – I’m still alive.” He was able to bail out of the plane, but fell through trees, and landed on a branch, fracturing his hip. he was captured as a Prisoner of War and taken to a military hospital. Soon after, he was moved to Stalag XVIII-A, a prisoner of war camp in southern Austria. He would remain a POW for seven months, and was liberated in early May of 1945. At the time of his rescue, he weight only 70 pounds. He returned to the States, where his recovery and rehabilitation would take an additional 2 years and require 18 surgeries. He would be left with lifelong health issues. In 1947, Smith retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of Captain. He was the recipient of many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, the Prisoner of War Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Purple Heart, and the WWII Victory Medal. 

Smith returned to Iowa City and completed his Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering in 1950. He moved to Schenectady, NY to take a job with General Electric, where he would also be active in the local chapter of the NAACP. He later accepted a position with the company that moved him and his wife to Philadelphia, PA where he earned a Masters degree in Metallurgical Engineering from Penn State. Smith would work for GE for 37 years. He held two U.S. Patents on dynamic sealing devices in aircraft, regularly published technical papers, and worked on projects with the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and U.S. Navy Submarine Command.

In 2000, he began speaking publicly about his time in the war, including about the impact of racial inequality in the military. He accompanied president Bill Clinton on a trip to Europe to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. In 2006, Tuskegee University awarded him with an honorary doctorate. He was part of the Architect-Engineer Evaluation Jury for the National World War II Memorial in Washington. In 2007 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as part of the Tuskegee Airmen. Captain Smith passed away in 2009 at the age of 89 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Works Cited:

American Air Museum in Britain. (n.d.). Luther H Smith | American Air Museum in Britain.

CAF Rise Above. (2018, October 17). Luther H. Smith.

Iowa Aviation Museum. (n.d.). Luther H. Smith – Iowa Aviation Museum.

Saylor, T. (2005, February 18). Oral History Project World War II Years, 1941–1946 – Luther Smith, Jr. DigitalCommons@CSP.

University of Iowa College of Engineering. (n.d.). Luther H. Smith. College of Engineering – The University of Iowa.

University of Iowa Libraries. (n.d.). UI Collection Guides -Civilian Pilot Training Program Records, 1942–1944.

Archibald A. Alexander

Archibald Alexander

Archibald (Archie) Alphonse Alexander was born in Ottumwa in 1888, one of eight children. His father provided for his family, working as a custodian. When Alexander was 11, his family moved to a small farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. His father was promoted to head custodian for the Des Moines National Bank, and the extra income allowed Alexander and his siblings to attend school. Alexander graduated from Oak Park High School at the age of 17. Although there were not sufficient funds to support him, Alexander was determined to be a college graduate, specifically, an engineer. He started in higher education at Highland Park College in Des Moines. His freshman year had gone well, but when it came time to prepare for his sophomore year, Alexander learned that the school had banned Black students, on account to students from the South leaving due to the classes being integrated. Alexander decided to move to Iowa City and start at the University of Iowa at 20. 

Alexander, who had been a standout athlete in high school, brought his skills to Iowa City, joining the University of Iowa Football Team and started for the first three years of his career. From a biography on Alexander from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Alexander was “considered a giant of a man at 6 feet 2 inches and 180 pounds, at a time when the average college football player was 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 135 pounds, Archie was popular with both fans and teammates who nicknamed him ‘Alexander the Great,’ both for his size and his athletic prowess” (Weingardt, 2009). Alexander also made an impact in the classroom. While his professors were supportive, the dean at the time was skeptical of Alexander’s future success, as he had never seen a successful Black engineer.

Alexander graduated in 4 years at the age of 24 in 1912, earning a BA in Civil Engineering, a varsity letter in football, and working multiple jobs to support himself. He was the first Black graduate from the College of Engineering. He moved back to Des Moines where he joined the Marsh Engineering Company. The founder, James B. Marsh had made his name by designing the Marsh Rainbow Arch Bridge. His time with Marsh’s company have a major impact on his career, which would focus on bridge building. In 1914, Alexander struck out on his own and founded A.A. Alexander, Inc., where he intended to only work on bridge building. At the beginning, winning contracts proved difficult, as many people were not open to working with a firm run by Black man, especially if other firms also bid. As a result, for the first few years A.A. Alexander, Inc. would design build only small bridge projects where they were the only bidders. Alexander was able to build his reputation, and eventually started winning larger projects. 

A few years into his business, Alexander was joined in business by George F. Higbee in a unique but effective interracial partnership. (This Higbee is not to be confused with Frederic Goodson Higbee, Professor and Head of Engineering Drawing, whose portrait hangs in the library here). Alexander would again be the sole proprietor of his company after Higbee was killed in a construction accident in the early 1920’s. During this time, he expanded the firm’s portfolio, building tunnels and power plants. Current students and members of the Iowa City community can see Alexander’s work in the University of Iowa Power Plant, completed in the mid 1920’s. This project also included steam tunnels that traveled under the Iowa River, providing steam and heat to the new west campus, including the Hospital and Field House.

University of Iowa Power Plant, designed by A. Alexander, soon after construction in 1927 (from Iowa Digital Library)

Alexander’s time working in Iowa City would further impact his life when he was joined in business by Maurice Repass. Repass had graduated one year after Alexander and been a member of the football team. Alexander and Repass would take on several large projects across the country, from Michigan, Nebraska, the Tuskegee Institute and even Washington, DC. One of their most recognizable projects is the Kutz Bridge, completed in 1943. If you have ever visited DC to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, or looked out over the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, you have likely seen Kutz Bridge.

Kutz Memorial Bridge at the DC Tidal Basin


A lifelong Republican, Alexander worked his whole life to improve the lives people of color. In Des Moines he helped to found the local chapter of the NAACP in 1944. He also served on the boards of Howard University and the Tuskegee Institute, both historically Black institutes. He and his wife Audra often vacationed in the Caribbean, and after his backing of Eisenhower’s successful presidential campaign, he was tapped to be the Governor of the United States Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, his work there was not well received, and his time in the Virgin Islands lasted a little over a year. He would pass away in Des Moines on January 4, 1958 at the age of 70, leaving behind a legacy of hard work. Upon his wife’s death, the Archie A. Alexander Memorial Scholarship was established at the University of Iowa. 

Works Cited

Jones, J. (2019, June 28). Archibald Alphonso Alexander: African American Design and Construction Genius. Black Then.

Landis, L. (2021, March 4). Iowa History Month: Archie Alexander built equality across the nation. Des Moines Register.

University of Iowa College of Engineering. (n.d.). Archibald A. Alexander. College of Engineering – The University of Iowa.

Weingardt, R. G. (2009). Archibald Alphonso Alexander. Leadership and Management in Engineering, 9(4), 207–211.

Dr. Philip G. Hubbard

Dr. Philip G. Hubbard

Philip G. Hubbard was born in Macon, Missouri, but moved to the Des Moines area when he was four years old. According to his book My Iowa Journey, his mother gave up her career as a teacher to move north so that Philip and his three brothers could attend unsegregated schools. While the schools were unsegregated for students, African American teachers were not allowed, so she instead found a job as an elevator operator. Hubbard’s mother was a major influence in his life, and she used her background in education to prepare him for school.

When he graduated from North High School in Des Moines, Hubbard considered several career paths, but ultimately chose engineering because it offered opportunities for advancement and could be finished in four years – which was all that Hubbard could afford. In addition, as a teenager he met University of Iowa College of Engineering alumnus Archie Alexander, who was living proof that an African American engineer could be successful. 

Hubbard arrived in Iowa City in 1940 with $252.50 in savings and took on a job shining shoes in the basement of the Jefferson Hotel, where he would study between customers. College life provided new opportunities, but racism did keep him from enjoying all of them. For example, he had to find his own lodgings, as he was not to live in the dormitories. In his book, Hubbard notes that he was lucky at the College of Engineering. While his friends in other departments experienced racism within their colleges, Hubbard felt welcomed and supported, especially by Dean Francis M. Dawson, who helped him secure a work study position at the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR).

Hubbard had no background in chemistry, as it was not offered at his high school. Seeking a challenge, he decided to major in chemical engineering. After a rough start, he would come to distinguish himself, winning the junior prize in chemistry and joining several honorary societies and fraternities. In May of 1943, Hubbard, who had joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army, was called up to report to Camp Dodge for active duty. As part of his service he was sent to Penn State where he took on study of electrical engineering. In 1944, Hubbard graduated with honors with a certificate in electrical engineering. In 1945 Dean Dawson arranged for him to leave the army and return to the University of Iowa to do military research. Hubbard received his degree in electrical engineering in January 1946. He would continue to work at IIHR, and earned his Masters in mechanics and hydraulics in 1949 and a Ph.D. in engineering in 1954. 

Hubbard joined the faculty of University of Iowa, becoming an assistant professor of mechanics and hydraulics and continuing his work at IIHR as a research engineer. In 1959, he was promoted to full professor, becoming the first fully tenured African American professor at the University. During this time of growth in his career, Hubbard was working towards equality within the college and his field. In his memoir, he recalls being invited to speak at a conference in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1951. After initially accepting the invitation, Hubbard had to turn it down, as the hotel had strict segregation rules. While Hubbard would have been allowed to speak, he would have had to take the service elevator to the room to present his speech then leave immediately after. Hubbard turned down this opportunity, noting that this situation was “unacceptable.”

In 1966, Hubbard was chosen to serve as Dean of Academic Affairs, which made him the first African American Dean at any of Iowa’s state universities. In 1971, he would achieve another first when he was named as Vice President of Student Services, which made him the first vice president at any Big Ten university. He used these positions to advocate for minority students, establishing Opportunity at Iowa to help retain minority students and faculty. He would retire from the university in 1990, having worked there for 43 years. In 1991, the field next to the Iowa Memorial Union previously known as Union Field was renamed Hubbard Field in his honor. 

Hubbard passed away at the age of 80 on January 10, 2002. If you want to learn more about Hubbard’s life in his own words, you can read his book online through the Iowa Digital Library.


Works Cited

Hubbard, P. G., & Stone, A. E. (1999). My Iowa Journey: The Life Story of the University of Iowa’s First Tenured African American Professor (1st ed.). University Of Iowa Press.

Philip G. Hubbard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa. Accessed February 10, 2022.

University of Iowa College of Engineering. (n.d.). Philip G. Hubbard. College of Engineering – The University of Iowa.

Dr. Lilia A. Abron

Dr. Lilia Abron

Dr. Lilia A. Abron was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 8, 1945 and grew up in the segregated South. She followed in her parents’ footsteps, attending LeMoyne College. Her college career did not begin well, with Abron losing her scholarship after her grades slipped and she lost her scholarship. During her sophomore year, she found her passion and switched to a chemistry major. She would go on to graduate from LeMoyne in 1966 with distinction. Her mentors at LeMoyne suggested that she study engineering, which led Abron to Washington University in St. Louis. There, she would earn her M.S. in sanitary engineering. She entered the professional field, working in sanitary departments in Kansas City and Chicago. 

Dr. Abron graduated from the University of Iowa in 1972, becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. She spent a few years in academia, but after finding it didn’t fit her career goals, she moved on and established PEER Consultants, earning her another first – the first African-American to establish an engineering consultant firm focused on environmental issues. PEER focuses on developing long-term and sustainable solutions for environmental issues.

Abron was inducted into the College of Engineering’s “Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy” in 19996 and received the University of Iowa Hancher-Finkbine Alumni Medallion in 1999. She is also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and has served on the board of several charitable organizations.



American Council of Engineering Companies. (2021, February 17). Black History Month Profile: Lilia Abron, Shattering Glass Ceilings.

PEER Consultants. (n.d.). Our Story. PEER Consultants, P.C.

The History Makers. (n.d.). Lilia Abron’s Biography.

Williams, R. (2022, January 5). Black Women in STEM: Dr. Lilia A. Abron. Owlcation.