Black History: Special Delivery!!

Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis (1943 – 2014)

Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis (1943-2014) earned a Ph.D in Computer Science from the University of Illinois. He was the first African American to gain a Ph.D in this area of study.  A dedicated educator, he loved to teach students who were new to the field of study and who lacked experience.  Ellis was born and raised on the south side of Chicago.  Ellis was also instrumental in the development of “groupware” technology. This technology makes it possible for several people to collaborate on a document at the same time.  His work made it possible for programs such as Google Docs and Sharepoint software to be developed.  He is also credited with inventing the technology we now use to click “icons” on a computer screen to execute computer commands.

While still a teenager, he took a night job as a computer operator to help support his family who was struggling financially.  However, his supervisor would not allow him to actually work on the computer and had him do other tasks instead.  That didn’t stop him though.  He began to read the computer manuals and gained a great deal of knowledge on the inner workings of the computer.  His church supported him financially so that he was able to attend Beloit College where he received a bachelors degree in Math and Physics.  There were no computer science courses offered at the school during that time.

Ellis then enrolled in MIT. However, he chose to leave when he became involved in civil rights activism.  He would later attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; receiving both a masters degree as well as a Ph.D in computer science.  Ellis’ skills allowed him to work for several large, well known companies and universities, including Los Alamos Scientific Labs, Xerox, and IBM.  Throughout his career, he was also very devoted to creating more access for students of color and other underrepresented youth to teach them about computer science. Ellis was awarded a Fulbright grant in 2013 and went to teach at Ashesi University in Ghana.  His teaching there focused on the need for world governments to focus on ethical practices.

Ellis died in 2014 at the age of 71