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Mar 03, 2022

Dr. Magee: A Man of Many Firsts

Knowledge is not power; the application of Knowledge is power.  Graveyards are filled with people who had knowledge but did not apply it. Through the application of his knowledge, Dr. Charles Magee, former Interim Dean of the College of Engineering Sciences, Technology and Agriculture (CESTA)/now College Agriculture of Agriculture and Food Sciences (CAFS) and Director of Land Grant Programs at Florida A&M University (FAMU) has gained national recognition for his innovative contributions to society. Not only is Dr. Magee a foremost professor in his field, he is also a founding and charter member of Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) (1986), author of the MANRRS constitution, and the organization’s first national treasurer and third national president (1990 – 1991) among his many roles over his career. Dr. Magee has dedicated his career to applying his passion and bringing more minorities into STEM and agricultural fields. This February, he was elected into the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) as a Senior Member for his “success in patents, licensing, and commercialization”, and for producing “technologies that have brought, or aspire to bring, real impact on the welfare of society” as stated in the press release. Dr. Magee has 8 patents pending, 8 patents granted, is the founder and owner of Kairo Klocks, LLC, and founding director of Florida A&M University’s Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) program. As a role model, a key member of the MANRRS organization, and a pioneering academic, this honor could not have come at a more fitting moment.

Even though Dr. Magee from an early age loved mathematics, the numbers were never on his side. Opportunities in a large family on a farm in rural Mississippi were not easy to come by. Fortunately, with a love for academics and agriculture, Alcorn State University was close by and he could learn more about his passions. He took the hard classes that most students wouldn’t elect to take, hoping to have more opportunities after graduation. One such opportunity came his way in the form of an invitation from the University of Minnesota, to study Agricultural Engineering. Dr. Magee had never heard of nor met an agricultural engineer. He says, “When I started investigating agricultural engineering, I realized this is the field that I’ve been looking for all this time, one that gives me mathematics and analytical skills and keeps me in agriculture”. It was an easy decision for him.

Dr. Magee worked hard to take high-level engineering science courses, at the same time teaching himself how to use the slide rule other students already knew how to use. He was trying to climb what seemed to him a broken academic ladder that had in fact never even existed. He was the one building it, placing footholds with each step he took. While his head was deep in his studies, “all hell was breaking loose” at the university around him. When Dr. Magee was offered to come to the University of Minnesota in 1969, he saw a great opportunity to learn about his interests. Meanwhile, the head of the department of agricultural engineering was taking a huge risk to bring him to this department without the support of all faculty members. The department head had decided to diversify the department despite whatever risk to him it may be, and that was final. Although he was unaware at the time, there were people counting on Dr. Magee to build this ladder successfully for those after him to climb. He graduated in 1973 as the First African American to earn an MS degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Minnesota.

 Dr. Magee knew he could persevere through his schooling to make sure that no other students after him had to go through what he went through. Determination could get him to his goals, but credentials would get him the respect he needed to influence the world of agricultural academics. He continued his education on to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York after receiving his master’s. When he graduated, Dr. Magee made history as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering from Cornell University and the third African American in the United States to earn a PhD degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Dr. Magee was kicking down doors that had been boarded up until he touched them. After earning his Ph.D., he went on to become the first African American assistant professor, in the college of agriculture, at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville.

Dr. Magee’s education journey was one step forward, two steps back. He stayed in school for 9 lonely and difficult years. Each university he attended for his graduate degrees made him retake courses that were not recognized by the previous schools. As an outsider in predominantly white institutions, he never had a black study partner, a professor that looked like him, or the resources the other students had gained through connections. He recalls too clearly how “The last 7 years I spent in graduate school; I never had an engineering class with a Black American.” Most STEM professors in those schools at the time assumed that as a native-born Black American, and one from the south, he would make the lowest grade in the class. Dr. Magee was going to prove them wrong. Those first few years in Minnesota made Dr. Magee’s life mission crystal clear. He states that “From when I started my master’s degree I made up my mind that if we are ever going to get more African Americans to go into this type of engineering, I’m going to have to be the person to promote it and sell it. ”

For years, everywhere Dr. Magee went he was alone. He had had enough. He did everything he could on the campus he served to change the face of academics and get more representation for students of color in science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. He had been serving as the advisor for several organizations on the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville campus including the minorities in agriculture club and the national society of black engineers, a group that had been formed several years before his arrival. Arkansas was not the only university trying to build up its minority student population. Dr. Eunice Foster, aformer student in the University of Arkansas club, at Michigan State University (MSU) was working as well to make it a better place for minorities in agricultural fields. The MSU club knew they couldn’t be the only school in similar situations and decided to host a national meeting. Dr. Magee attended the 1986 meeting at Michigan State as the only faculty member that came from a historically black land grant school out of 11 universities represented. These meetings evolved over several years into the organization MANRRS. Dr. Magee’s part in MANRRS was all in the hopes that things would get better for students on predominantly white campuses and that representation would increase for minorities in leadership roles.

Dr. Magee took a position at FAMU in 1995 where he was asked to start the BSE program and is still teaching today. He worked to build a notable program where he applied his interests into tools that he let society decide were beneficial. For him, this recognition as a member of the NAI is a testament to his engineering knowledge. His latest tool is something he is personally very proud of. He describes his rehydration chamber as a tool that is needed to change the outlook for poor and limited resource farmers, not a luxury item. The Osmotic System for Maintenance of Perishable Items [United States (U.S.) Patent No.: US 11,206,854 B2], patented in December 2021, is a revolutionary system in the sanitization, storage, rehydration, and shipment of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and nuts. To be successful, farmers have to prove that they are putting a clean and safe product on the market. This chamber will help poor and limited resource producers like those he grew up with meet the standards of the food market and be able to sell their products competitively. His example as an inventor and mentor is changing what students see themselves capable of. He advises those who can, to get their advanced degrees. Through his years of schooling, he never had an engineering mentor that was African American. The only way to change that in the future is for more African Americans to get advanced degrees in the agricultural and engineering sciences.

Dr. Magee’s success in establishing more African Americans in STEM and in agricultural fields is evident today. Minorities in agriculture and science have each other to lean on because Dr. Magee stood alone for them. Among his many firsts, he is the first and only Alcorn State University graduate to earn a Ph.D. degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering; the first professor to receive a patent in the history of Fort Valley State University (Fort Valley, GA), and Biological Systems Engineering at FAMU;  the first African American graduate of a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to earn a Ph.D. degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Though this month is at an end, Black history is not. MANRRS thanks Dr. Magee for his dedication to students and for making history over and over again. 

By Brooklyn Schumaker March 3, 2022