‘We never knew’: Family uncovers history of Miami’s first Black graduate

Nellie Craig Walker graduated from Miami University in 1905 and the university recently renamed one of its building after its first Black graduate. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Nellie Craig Walker graduated from Miami University in 1905 and the university recently renamed one of its building after its first Black graduate. SUBMITTED PHOTO

OXFORD — A family with Butler County roots nearly missed history 116 years in the making.

Generations of Nellie Craig Walker’s family were told she graduated from Oberlin College. But when one of her great-great-granddaughters researched family history, she discovered an article on Miami University’s website about a Nellie Craig Walker who graduated from there in 1905.

The same Nellie Craig Walker.

“We never knew,” said Melanie Walker, 56, one of Craig Walker’s great-granddaughters.

Not only did Craig attend college, but she was the first Black student to graduate from Miami University. To commemorate this achievement, the university renamed the Campus Avenue Building to the Nellie Craig Walker Hall at the corner of Campus and East Spring streets.

“What a great honor,” said Walker, who noted her family didn’t know about the renaming until after the ceremony. “We are so proud of her for what she did, and to be the first makes it extra special.”

To understand how Miami has changed since Craig Walker was the first Black graduate, consider its diversity today. Miami’s 2020 undergraduate enrollment was 16,566, according to the university. Minorities made up 15.7 percent for the Oxford campus, and that percentage jumped to 24.5 when international students are included.

Craig Walker, the youngest of four children, was born in Oxford in 1881 and was one of 20 women enrolled in Miami’s Ohio State Normal College, where she earned her two-year teaching certificate. She was the first Black educator to student teach in the Oxford Public School system to a mixed-race classroom, according to Miami’s records.

Upon graduation, she taught elementary school in Indiana, then married James Walker in 1911 and moved to Cleveland, where much of her family remains.

Walker never met her great-grandmother, who died in 1969 at age 88. But she’s sure Walker would be proud of how other women in the family followed her footsteps.

A graduate of Howard University, Walker serves as associate dean of the law school at Case Western University. Her daughter, Jocelyn Bellephant, graduated from Southern University, and another daughter, Whitney Bellephant, is a senior at Kent State.

Walker often thinks about the sacrifices her great-grandmother must have made, balancing raising three grandsons whose parents married at an early age and then divorced with her educational responsibilities. Craig Walker was the only member of her family who could read and write.

Black History Month is the perfect time to acknowledge those achievements, Walker said.

“Truly inspiring,” her great-granddaughter said. “She had to have been tremendously strong and determined to even think she could go to school and graduate.”

Miami President Greg Crawford said Craig Walker had “a tremendous impact” not only at Miami but in the Oxford community as she overcame racial barriers.

“It’s important that her story continues to inspire future generations of Miamians for years to come,” he said.

Anthony James, director of Miami’s family science program and interim vice president for institutional diversity, said Craig Walker was the first woman of color to have a Miami building named in her honor.

“We have a deep belief that this action helps promote a campus that is inclusive and welcoming to a broader constituency,” he said.

Walker understands that today’s struggles for minorities are much different than her great-grandmother faced more than 100 years ago. Toward the end of the phone interview, I asked her about Black History Month and its significance.

“A sense of family and sense of tradition,” she explained. “My mother always told me that our race has gone through so much struggle. We have triumphed while the weak ones have died off. It’s like the survival of the fittest. What has been instilled for generations: We have to overcome multi barriers and come out the other side with our morals and ethics intact.”

Nellie Craig Walker became the first Black to graduate from Miami University in 1905. Miami recently renamed one of its building after her. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Nellie Craig Walker became the first Black to graduate from Miami University in 1905. Miami recently renamed one of its building after her. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Continuing coverage

Throughout Black History Month, the Journal-News will be covering Butler County’s past, present and future in the Black community. Today continues that coverage some of the recently resurfaced history of Miami University’s first Black graduate.