Four years ago, Constance Walter, the former editor of Contacts magazine (now Engineering@Nebraska), was looking for photographs to accompany a story about an alumni award winner. In the process, she came across a photograph of Samuel ZaZa Childs Westerfield Sr. in the 1911 yearbook. Westerfield graduated that year with a B.S. in electrical engineering. Walter found it interesting that a black man graduated from the university at a time when most colleges and universities wouldn't accept black students. A cursory look through other yearbooks led Walter to believe that a black man in engineering was even more rare. Sure enough, Westerfield was the first black man to receive an engineering degree from UNL. She placed a request in the Fall 2002 issue of Contacts asking readers to provide information about Westerfield. Last fall, Walter was surprised to receive responses from two branches of Westerfield's family–neither of which was aware of the other. It turns out Westerfield's family had found the notice in the online edition of Contacts.
I began searching for information about Samuel ZaZa Childs Westerfield Sr. more than three years ago. An Internet search led to Westerfield's son, Samuel Z. Westerfield Jr., who worked in the Department of State and was appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as deputy assistant secretary for economic affairs with the Bureau of African Affairs. I also discovered a grandson, Samuel Z. Westerfield III, an anesthesiologist in Ohio.
But after finding these bits of information, my research had hit a dead end until the Westerfield family contacted me after finding the reader notice. Although they didn't have a great deal of information about Mr. Westerfield, what they provided has given us a glimpse into his life, one that was full and yet somewhat tragic.
More recently, Adella Bush, a niece of Westerfield who lives in Los Angeles, began corresponding with me. Her nephew Tim Richardson, who works with Boys and Girls Clubs of America, introduced me to his aunt through a phone call. Following are excerpts from two letters Bush sent:
"… My mother's family was from Lincoln (she was born there). Uncle ZaZa visited us a couple of times and we were all very glad to see him. Mother almost never discussed their early life. Tragically, it seems to me it is not unusual that black folks of that era didn't disclose much personal information."
She also explained that her uncle was married twice but was estranged from his first wife and family and that his son, Westerfield Jr., died in Africa.
Bush also sent a copy of a letter that Westerfield had written to his nephew Cecil on May 20, 1967, after Cecil visited him in New York. Westerfield wrote:
His parents were married in 1885 or 1887, and he was born Nov. 11, 1889. He was home schooled until third grade and credited his mother with his academic success.
My darling mother (your great-grandmother Westerfield) … attended Oberlin College … and taught secondary school in Cincinnati or Cleveland, Ohio. Her maiden name was Ida Alice Childs. My mother's scholastic training showed in my studies in Lincoln High School and the University of Nebraska. My mother was the backbone and mainstay for me while I was in the University of Nebraska and also for a short while after I graduated in 1911.
While Westerfield was attending UNL, his father, Samuel Franklin Westerfield, was "waylaid in the basement of his café" and never fully recovered. He died in September 1907 or 1908.
Westerfield attended Harvard University, earning an LL.B. degree in 1916, and went on to teach at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. His mother moved to Chicago with his sister but died from pneumonia before he could reach her. For three years, he stayed in Chicago where he married and started a family. In 1919 he moved to Washington D.C.
Bush ended her letter with this tribute to her beloved uncle:
Uncle ZaZa was a small man. A delightful, well-informed man with a charming old school manner of speaking. I am sorry we didn't have more opportunity to be around him. Unfortunately, he was on one coast, and we, his sister Christeale's family, on the other. There just wasn't much back-and-forth travel.
Samuel ZaZa Childs Westerfield died in the late 1960s, but he left a lasting impression.
"He is remembered fondly by those of us in the family old enough to have met him," Bush said. "He was a dear man."