Veterans in the Archives: Learning More about Henry Black

Today, the United States observes Veterans Day, which commemorates veterans of all wars. If you’re familiar with Iowa State University, you probably know Henry Montgomery Black – even if you don’t think you do. Professor Black, a World War II veteran and the head of the Mechanical Engineering department from 1946 until 1972, is the namesake of the Black Engineering Building. Special Collections hosts the Black Family papers, and we have recently processed Henry Black’s professional papers from his tenure at ISU.

Box 2, Folder 7, Henry Montgomery Black Papers

Black in his role as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, circa 1950s (Box 2, Folder 7, RS 11/10/19)

As is to be expected, the Henry Montgomery Black Papers provide insight into the field of mechanical and professional engineering, particularly at Iowa State University, his alma mater (1929) and employer. Dr. Black was very interested in the direction of engineering education; this interest led him to roles in a number of engineering organizations, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME), the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development, and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. Since many, if not all, of his students aimed to become licensed professional engineers, Black kept a hand in professional engineering standards and examinations, serving in a leadership position on the Iowa State Board of Engineering Examiners for several years. The collection reflects all of these associations and his contributions to them.

Henry Black was a man of many interests, and his papers sketch a more nuanced picture of his contributions outside of engineering leadership. As an example, for nearly 20 years Black worked on the annual ASME design problem contest, a challenge aimed at inspiring creativity from engineering students that is still in existence today. He was interested in practical applications of engineering, not just its study, and the contest was a way to help students apply their knowledge. The papers show that the professors who wrote the test questions were challenged to develop difficult problems for students to solve!

He was also an amateur historian who collected historical information for the institutions to which he claimed allegiance. His papers contain notes on the history of mechanical engineering at ISU, which he used as department head and professor; the history of mechanical engineering in the United States, which was relevant as a member of ASME’s Centennial Committee and its the History Subcommittee; and the Army Reserve’s history at ISU, which was important to him as an alumnus and a World War II veteran.

Box 1, Folder 25, Henry Montgomery Black Papers

Black and students pictured during an inspection trip, gaining first-hand, practical knowledge of the mechanical engineering field (Box 1, Folder 25, RS 11/10/19)

Black’s military career is represented in his professional papers as well. A famous saying goes, “once a Marine, always a Marine,” and the sentiment applies to Black’s Army service as well.  His Army career started in 1929, when he joined the Reserves upon graduation from Iowa State. This led to his role as chief engineer of the Army’s landing at Utah Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Black resumed his reservist status when he returned to Iowa State and did not retire until 1960. Over those nearly 15 years, as the commander of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers group, he attended and led training for other soldier-engineers. These case studies and problems appear in his Iowa State files, indicating that perhaps the Army Corps of Engineers were not the only one to benefit from Black’s time in its employ.

Black’s contributions extend to the community of Ames as well. He was active in the Tall Corn Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, using his engineering insight to help maintain various Boy Scout camps in Iowa. As evidenced by a scrapbook and newsletters in his papers, Black served year-long presidencies of the Ames Chamber of Commerce and the Ames Rotary Club and was a long-time member of both organizations. Curious about the history of these business and community service organizations in Ames? The Henry Black Papers can satisfy that craving.   For more information about the Henry Montgomery Black Papers (RS 11/10/19) or our other faculty and alumni collections, please visit us online or on the fourth floor of Parks Library in the Special Collections department, open M-F, 10 am to 4pm. A copy of the paper’s finding aid, listing all the materials and providing more background on the collection, is also available online here.

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