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Courageous Parker sisters were ‘Boilermakers in every sense’

In June 2021, the Purdue Board of Trustees formally celebrated the legacy of two Purdue alumnae who helped to break down existing barriers by renaming the Griffin Residence Hall buildings in honor of Frieda Parker (Jefferson) and Winifred Parker (White). The buildings, originally named after the mythical creature featured on the Purdue seal, are the first buildings on Purdue’s campus to be named after Black alumnae.

Provost Jay Akridge, along with Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion John Gates, pushed forward the recommendation from Black Cultural Center director Renee Thomas to rename the buildings to Frieda Parker Hall and Winifred Parker Hall in honor the Parker sisters’ legacy.


“These two women were Boilermakers in every sense when you think about some of those characteristics that we like to lift up and celebrate,” says Akridge. “It’s one of those stories of persistence and path-breaking action and really opening up doors for so many others — both women and women of color.”

“They were pioneers in their own way,” Gates says. “There’s so much to their Purdue story and their remarkable lives that made this something to celebrate and honor.”

The buildings will be a reminder of the courage and tenacity that the sisters displayed. During their time at Purdue and throughout their professional lives as educators, the sisters continued to promote the advancement of underrepresented populations.

The location of the halls is noteworthy. The residence halls are adjacent to the Black Cultural Center and just down the block from the former site of Bunker Hill, the residence hall to which the Parker sisters were admitted.

These two women were Boilermakers in every sense when you think about some of those characteristics that we like to lift up and celebrate.

Provost Jay Akridge

“We conduct culturally relevant BCC facility tours to educate audiences about the Black experience at Purdue,” Thomas says. “It is fitting the building named in honor of these two trailblazing sisters is a place for students to live and learn. Our tours will highlight Parker Hall and reference the sisters who were responsible for the integration of University Residences. Generations of Purdue students will be inspired to continue their legacy of educational excellence.”

Upon enrollment, the Parker sisters were initially denied the opportunity to live in University housing. In 1946, both housing at Purdue and in the city of West Lafayette was segregated, forcing the sisters to live in a boarding house in Lafayette.

Due to the daily commute, the sisters missed out on social and educational opportunities that resident students were able to enjoy. Frederick Parker, a prominent math teacher at segregated Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis and father of the Parker sisters, understood the impact that the residential experience can have on the quality of education.

Winifred and Freida Parker at Graduation

The family’s persistence – particularly that of Frederick, helped to push the Purdue administration to reconsider its housing policies. Their father helped to mobilize support from connections in the Black community and started a letter-writing campaign.

Among the recipients of Fred Parker’s letters was Indiana Gov. Ralph Gates.

“He made it well known that Purdue was a land-grant school supported by state taxes, and his taxes supported the school just like everyone else’s, so why couldn’t his children live on campus?” Frieda said of her father to University historian John Norberg. “The fact that Blacks were not allowed in the dorms was a policy that had been set up in the housing office at Purdue. It was not a law.”

The governor agreed to take up the family’s cause, leading to Purdue admitting the Parker sisters into Bunker Hill in January 1947. They were among the first Black residents of Purdue.

While it was not easy at first, the sisters were able to lean on the local Black community for support, particularly friends they met through the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Winifred met and later married her husband, Walter, through this social network.

Over time, the sisters became friends with the other residents of the hall, who went on to elect Winifred as the secretary of the governing board for the Women’s Residence Halls.

Despite the challenges surrounding their admittance, the Parker family maintained warm feelings for their alma mater. Frieda and her father were both vocal Purdue recruiters. Frieda’s sons, Ralph (BS ’80) and Brian (BS ’83) both graduated from Purdue with degrees in chemical engineering and industrial engineering, respectively.

 

The Parker sisters attending a party.

When Frieda passed away in 2020, the Jefferson family requested donations to a Purdue Black Alumni Organization scholarship endowment established in her memory in lieu of flowers.

“She wanted as many people as she could find to go to Purdue, and a number of them did,” Ralph Jefferson says of his mother. “I thought it made sense and it fit, and I thought it would help to honor my mother and my aunt’s view of the school, as well as my grandfather’s view of the school, who loved Purdue, and their contribution to the history of how the school developed.”

Winifred’s daughters believe their mother, who passed away in 2003, and aunt’s story of strength, inclusiveness and positivity can be a source of encouragement for current and future Purdue students who are facing their own challenges.

“My mother would have been profoundly happy to think that if young women and young men who doubt their ability or are uncertain as to whether they belong or whether they could fulfill their potential could somehow look up at the name and know that someone else made it through and that they have responsibility to keep the world going," Adreinne White-Faines, Winifred’s youngest daughter says. "She would just be beyond herself.

“Because that’s really what they were about," White-Faines continues. "It was really a very humble commitment: Get educated and do your part to make the world a better place.”

Based on an article in Purdue News.