Monday, August 15, 2016
The Spirit of Engineering: Ulysses Cephas
Some years ago, probably in the late 1940s—the news clipping has no date on it—an 18-year-old woman attending what was then called Southwest Texas State Teachers' College in San Marcos was seriously injured in an automobile accident, suffering a broken pelvis. She was taken to a hospital, but became despondent, and her attending doctor decided she should spend her long recovery at home in Hico, 150 miles away. But the jarring of a long road trip might cause further injuries. Some sort of rigid custom-made frame to hold her bones in place was needed, but where could such a thing be found?
The photo accompanying the article shows the solution: a sort of cage made of three or four steel straps attached to a stretcher. The article gives the names of the young woman and the doctor, but identifies the craftsman who designed and fabricated the frame only as "the village blacksmith." Thus encased, she was able to be transported safely to Hico, thanks to the village blacksmith. Probably everyone who read the article in the San Marcos local paper knew who the village blacksmith was. He lived in a house he built himself, worked in a shop he owned, and had the skills to construct a custom medical device that today would cost many thousands of dollars to make. Why, then, was the newspaper so reticent about giving his name? We can only speculate at this point, but I can think of one good reason. Ulysses Cephas was black.
Mr. Cephas was born in San Marcos in 1884 to Joe and Elizabeth Cephas, both former slaves. Joe was a blacksmith, and Ulysses followed in his father's footsteps. Around 1909, Ulysses had acquired enough skills to obtain a certificate in Artistic Horseshoeing, and that was the extent of his formal education. He married and built a small, sturdy house in the black section of San Marcos. San Marcos, along with the rest of Texas back then, was a segregated society. Blacks could live only in the black section of town. Blacks could sit only in the black section of movie theaters, if the theater happened to have such a section. It was a common sight to see hotels, restrooms, and even water fountains labeled with signs such as "For Whites Only" or the less direct but just as effective "We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To Anyone."
Mr. Cephas, if he did not embrace these restrictions, at any rate lived within them. He, along with the rest of the black community, endured the rise of the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. After some Klan doings that were so bad they drew the attention of the local law authorities, the police asked Mr. Cephas if he could identify certain horseshoe prints left at the scene. Mr. Cephas was able to connect the prints with one of his own customers, which led to an arrest of the culprit. Even the Klan came to "Boots" Cephas for horseshoes.
By 1933, Mr. Cephas had saved enough to buy the blacksmith shop he worked in, while supporting his five children. As if that wasn't enough, he became active in the First Missionary Baptist Church and helped found the San Marcos Independent Band. But he kept busy working in his shop, as pages from his account book from 1944 attest. They include things like repairing wagon wheels, drilling holes in iron plates, welding a battery box for the local phone company, and renovating pieces of farm equipment for local farmers. By that time, his shop was what we would term today a general metal fabrication facility, and his reputation for being able to deal with almost any problem was what led the young woman's doctor to him when the special frame was needed.
There is a photo of Mr. Cephas at work: a sturdy, overalls-clad man caught in the midst of swinging a heavy hammer—an engineer's hammer, is the technical term. Along with the photo, another news article quotes him as saying that when he passes from the scene, there won't be anyone to replace him. Young people these days aren't interested in the hot, heavy work of blacksmithing, he says. This was well before air conditioning was installed in most small-town businesses, let alone residences or blacksmith shops.
Mr. Cephas died in 1952, with $10,000 in the bank, rental property in hand, and owing only a keg of nails. His house stood vacant for years until the City of San Marcos, prompted by those interested in black history, used federal funds to renovate it and turn it into a multi-use space for things like art classes, which is how I found out about the house and Mr. Cephas's story—my wife was attending an art class that I visited last Friday. Artifacts from his life and work are on display there, and the house itself is a testimony to the skill he brought to his work—the original door and doorknob from the 1920s are still in use.
Ethical exemplars are people whose professional conduct goes beyond the call of duty to the point where they can be held up as examples of how to do it right. Mr. Cephas's skin color and birth date barred him from any realistic hopes of gaining an engineering education. Most of the few colleges open to blacks back then had no engineering schools, and even if they had, the need for tuition money was an obstacle that few black students could overcome. So he took his certificate in artistic horseshoeing and taught himself everything else he needed to know to serve the community of his birth, even when it turned on him viciously as the KKK did. His unique skills allowed him to be prosperous in a modest way, and he gave back in terms of service to his church and to the citizens at large who enjoyed the music he and his friends played at special events. In his life of integrity and service, he showed how a professional—one with specialized knowledge—can use this knowledge responsibly to make the world a better place. That is what engineering should be all about, and though he lacked the usual academic credentials, I salute Ulysses Cephas as one who embodied in his life and work the true spirit of engineering.