Eight years before Georgia Institute of Technology admitted Black students, a young man hoping to study mechanical engineering applied to go to school there.
The interactions that followed – the cold indifference showed by Georgia Tech, the support that Robert Cheeseboro received from the NAACP and the newspaper articles that detailed his struggles – are archived in the Library of Congress.
Cheeseboro’s daughter, Evelyn Bolton, 53, of Gastonia, knew little about this until she found documents shortly before her father died of dementia in February. He was 87.
The library’s records paint a picture of her father’s struggle as a Black man in the South, a time Cheeseboro rarely spoke of, Bolton said.
“It’s sad that I never took the time to really understand what he went through,” she said.
CHEESEBORO VS. GEORGIA TECH
Cheeseboro was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934 and grew up in Columbus, Georgia, on the western border of the state.
He was smart enough to skip his senior year of high school to attend Morehouse College, the historically Black men’s liberal arts school in Atlanta, family members said.
In 1953 – after a year at Morehouse – Cheeseboro applied to Georgia Tech, located just 4 miles from Morehouse. But for a Black man in the 1950s, it was unreachable.
Cheeseboro’s application included a transcript of A’s and B’s and letters of recommendation, documents show. One highlighted Cheeseboro’s “ability to do good work scholastically and his natural ability to organize and lead people.” Another said Cheeseboro was a member of the National Honor Society.
Georgia Tech’s response? It recommended that Cheeseboro go to school out of state, according to a March 9, 1953, letter from LR Siebert, the executive secretary for the regents of the university system.
The system would even help pay Cheeseboro not to attend Georgia Tech.
“The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia has approved the granting of scholarship aid to qualified Negro citizens of the State of Georgia for the study in those fields offered to the white citizens of the state by the University System of Georgia, but not offered at the Negro institutions of the University System, ”Siebert’s letter read.
In his letter, Siebert mentions about a dozen possible universities, including North Carolina A&T, Howard University, New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But Cheeseboro persisted with efforts to enroll in the state-funded campus, letters show. He wrote back at least four times, asking school officials to reconsider.
“Georgia Institute of Technology is the school of my choice and offers the kind of training I seek, I would therefore request you to evaluate my record on the basis of its merits for admission to the Georgia Institute of Technology,” Cheeseboro wrote.
Black newspapers across the country spread news of how Cheeseboro was treated. The Library of Congress sent Bolton copies of articles from Atlanta, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Miami that outline his story.
“Morehouse Student Seeks Admission to Georgia Tech” read an April 18, 1953 headline in the Miami Times.
The article describes how the NAACP released copies of Cheeseboro’s correspondence with the school. It also describes how the school tightened restrictions, making it nearly impossible for Black people to be admitted.
“Last Wednesday, the Regents directed all units of the system to give entrance examinations, and in addition, to require all prospective students to submit certificates from university alumni attesting to their good character,” the article reads.
“Of course, in the Jim Crow South, that wasn’t going to happen,” Bolton told The Charlotte Observer.
Cheeseboro never got into Georgia Tech. He left the state to get his degree at the University of Rochester in New York.
He eventually made his way to California, where, around 1965, he invented a portable record player called the Swinger.
The Swinger weighed 5 and a half pounds, came with rechargeable batteries and could be turned upside down or installed in a car.
Think of it as a precursor to the CD player.
Fast-forward more than 50 years. From her home in Gastonia, 17-year-old Samantha Bolton, Cheeseboro’s granddaughter, applied for admission into Georgia Tech.
At the time, she had no knowledge of the battle her grandfather fought.
The family stumbled across the Library of Congress documents after Samantha got in and shortly before school officials offered her the Provost Scholarship.
The scholarship gives 40 first-year, non-Georgia residents an out-of-state tuition waiver for eight semesters.
Yes, the school that once tried to pay her grandfather to attend college elsewhere would be giving Samantha money to attend.
And there is this: Samantha hopes to study mechanical engineering, “like my grandfather.”