Lelia Thompson Flagg: Breaking barriers


Lelia Thompson Flagg was the first African American to graduate from Missouri S&T. Photo by B.A. Rupert

Lelia Thompson Flagg was not the first African American student to enroll at this university. But she was the first to graduate, receiving her bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from the Missouri School of Mines (as S&T was then known) in 1960.

Recently, Flagg discussed her experience as a student in the late 1950s and her experience as one of the few African Americans — and few women — in the field of engineering.

Growing up in St. Louis, Flagg excelled at math and was encouraged by her teachers and family to study engineering. She applied to MSM and was accepted, so racial discrimination by the campus was not an issue. She even received a scholarship to attend.

But when she arrived in Rolla with her mother, grandmother and uncle, her gender did pose a problem.
Flagg showed the registrar her acceptance letter, and he replied, “Oh, yes, we have accepted you; but your problem is, you need to find somewhere to live because there are no female dorms,” she recalls.

She found living quarters with an African American family south of campus and became one of 2,407 students enrolled in the fall of 1956. She was one of only 11 women, many of them from the community, Flagg says.

After graduation, Flagg headed to California to work at the Bureau of Sanitary Engineering. Later, she returned to Rolla and became assistant director of admissions until 1998.

Story by Andrew Careaga

Video by Terry Barner
See a full list of Black History Month events at Missouri S&T.


  1. Patty Frisbee says

    Lelia, you are an inspiration to everyone! I am proud to know you. -Patty

  2. Joanne Reynolds says

    Mrs. Flagg I stand in awe of you and your achievements. You were instrumental in my admission to UMR in 1997. I thank you for your part in paving the way for African-Americans especially African-American women. YOU ROCK!!!

  3. Joanne Reynolds says

    As we celebrate Black History month I celebrate you too, Mrs. Flagg.

  4. J.J. Myers says

    Wonderful Story. Wonderful Person. Civil Engineering was lucky to have her pave the way at MSM/UMR/S&T. Thanks for sharing your story for today’s generation to learn about our history!

  5. Carla Bates says

    I was so excited when I saw your story! You were one of the best people to work with and you inspired me. BTW, I passed my comps now and I’m ABD….. See how far you pushed me (probably without knowing it). From clerk typist with 0 college hours almost to my PHD.

  6. Andy Stewart says

    Ms. Flagg:
    You make me proud to know you!! It was before my time on campus, but I didn’t realize the all hurdles you overcame! Your story is a great one for all younger generations to hear.

  7. Gary Spring says

    Great to see you. My favorite memory of you is you standing at the train station in St. Louis waving good bye to our little STI darlin’ who chose to stay on train rather than get off with the rest of us 🙂 I’m so happy to see that you are still active and engaged at the University!
    Best wishes