In 1952, Joseph Thomas Gier became the first tenured Black professor in the University of California system and the second at any highly-ranked predominantly white university. Despite his historical significance, the record of his existence as a UC Berkeley professor of engineering became lost over time.
After uncovering details of his past, a sculpture now honors Gier and his work in the Blum Hall courtyard, a central location for engineering students. The statue was unveiled on campus Wednesday by the artist, Dana King.
“It wasn’t surprising that the university lost track of Gier but I wanted this statue to serve as a wedge into the door of Berkeley’s forgotten history so that it wouldn’t close again,” said Magdalene Crowley, former EECS communication director.
Crowley said she discovered a recording of Gier in campus obituaries in 2018, but she couldn’t find anything else about him other than a three sentence column in an Ohio newspaper.
Crowley later found a folder on Gier in a campus building basement and was inspired to write a historical page on him for the EECS department website.
According to the webpage, Gier grew up in Oakland and earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from campus before returning to complete a Master’s degree in engineering. He began working for the university in 1939 as a lab technician and moved to UCLA in 1958, three years before his death.
While working at Berkeley, Gier worked on eight patents with mechanical engineering professor Robert Valentine Dunkle. These patents became used as standard equipment in the nation’s space laboratories.
“He quietly inspired and influenced the lives of many people who, in turn, influenced the lives of others,” his biographical page reads.
Gier was also notably involved in solar energy research, according to the web page. Crowley said she found a note he wrote to colleagues encouraging students to take his course on solar energy, written 20 years before solar power became a known mechanism.
King explained that her statue was made for students of color who may wonder if they are capable of becoming engineers.
“They can (become engineers), and they have shoulders to stand on,” King said.
Gier’s statue is cast in bronze and sits on a “pillar of his accomplishments,” Crowley noted, with an inscription about his life and work on one side and 3D printings of his own drawings and math on the other.
King said her work is in the classical figurative style and is designed to be instantly recognizable and exact — rather than a mere likeness of the person it represents.
“It’s subversive because I take an art form that, in this country, is used to create European identity, and I (instead) create Black bodies in bronze,” King said.
Joseph Gier’s son and nephew were also present at the unveiling, according to King.