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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

William A. Grant

On February 25, 1904, the U.S. Office of Public Road Inquiries hired William Alphonso Grant as a Student Assistant in the Bureau of Chemistry's Road Material Laboratory. He was 19 years old, having been born on November 26, 1885. Grant would earn $25 per month or $300 annually.

The second line on the personal-statement sheet for all new employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was: "White or colored?" Grant wrote in the blank: "Colored." Grant may have been the agency's first African-American employee, but that cannot be determined. If not the first, he was one of the first.

At the time, Grant was a legal resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, although he graduated from Armstrong High School in Washington. He had taken technical courses in high school and lived at 1220 Niagara Street in Ft. Stevens, in the Brightwood area of northwest Washington. (Brightwood had been known as Vinegar Hill when it was founded in the early 19th century by free African-Americans.) His father Edward was a florist.

Grant became a permanent employee on July 1, 1905, though still with a salary of $300 per year in the Bureau of Chemistry. In June 1907, he received a promotion to $40 per month ($480 per year).

At the time, the laboratory offered free testing of rock samples submitted by officials around the country to determine their adequacy as a road material - one of the agency's most popular functions. According to an article in the agency's inhouse newsletter years later:

His first assignment was as a student assistant testing cement and aggregates for concrete under Dr. Alton B. Cushman, assistant to Logan Waller Page who was in charge of the laboratory. [Page would head the agency from 1905 until his death in 1918.] The entire office [of Public Road Inquiries] comprised some 20 people . . . . The laboratory was located at 14th and B Street, S.W., across the street from the old Bureau of Printing and Engraving Building.

Soon after Mr. Grant's entry into the service, Mr. Page arranged for him to receive special training in the Office of the Geological Survey where he learned the technique of making, polishing, and mounting thin sections of mineral and rock specimens for petrographic study and classification. The preparation of these slides and other types of special rock specimens has been his responsibility since that time.

Throughout his career, Grant held such titles as Laboratory Helper, Laboratory Aid, Assistant Scientific Aid, and Scientific Helper. By the 1940s, his work had shifted to the agency's Abingdon Research Station in Arlington, Virginia. He lived at 1740 13th Street, NW., with his wife Maude E. Ross Grant. They had four daughters. In a form he filled out around this time, he listed his height as 5 feet 3 inches, weight as 137 pounds, and hair color as gray.

In approximately 1950, he filled out an Experience and Qualifications Sheet. At the time, he was a GS-5 earning $3,850 a year working in the Research Lab at Gravelly Point, Virginia (essentially where Ronald Reagan National Airport is located). His work was described in the language of personnel forms, leaving the first person pronoun out:

Under general supervision of professional employees, prepare test specimens and makes physical tests of rock. These tests include abrasion, hardness, compression, specific gravity, absorption and soundness. Specimens for compression and toughness are prepared by drilling cores from a sample of ledge rock, using a diamond drill; sawing the ends with a diamond saw in order to provide the cylindrical specimens of the required length and grinding the ends of the specimens in order to insure smooth surfaces. Tests are conducted in accordance with established procedures.

Employee is also required to prepare microscopic rock slides for the use of the Petrographer. This is done by selecting an area representing an average part of the sample. This area is then ground on one side until the surface is entirely free from scratches, after which the sample is mounted on a glass surface coated with balsam. The other side of the specimen is then ground to a transparent thickness, after which it is also covered with a glass.

Due to long service in the laboratory, is frequently called upon to make minor repairs on the apparatus used in the laboratory.

Computations are all checked by superior for mathematical accuracy and conformity to procedures before reporting on the results.

Guides followed are laboratory practices, established methods of procedures and oral instructions.

Contacts are confined to employees of the laboratory.

By 1955, Grant's title was Engineering Aid (Civil), with a salary of $4,750 per year. On November 26, 1955, he reached the mandatory government retirement age of 70. Under the provisions of the Retirement Act, his employment terminated on November 30, 1955, by which point he had served with the agency for 51 years, 9 months, and 6 days (counting from his permanent employment beginning in July 1905).

The inhouse article, cited earlier, about his retirement appeared on page 1 of The News in Public Roads . With a "record of service exceeding that of anyone in the Bureau," the article said, Grant had performed with distinction:

His patience and skill in [his] work have contributed materially to the quality and value of the research that has been done by the Bureau on the description and classification of road-building rocks.

Mr. Grant holds a unique place in the respect and affection of his associates. The importance of doing his work conscientiously and with pride in the result has always been his principal concern. ["51 Years of Service," The News in Public Roads , November 1955]

Grant's coworkers staged a farewell ceremony for Grant in one of the Bureau of Public Roads' laboratories west of the airport.

Commissioner of Public Roads C. D. Curtiss had personally commended Grant upon his 50th anniversary. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks, whose department housed the Bureau, sent Grant a congratulatory letter dated December 31, 1955:

It is indeed heartwarming to me to hear of such a splendid record as yours. I want you to know that your many years of faithful service are deeply appreciated. Your constant diligence in performing the duties assigned to you and your steady attention to your work have been most beneficial to the Bureau of Public Roads.

The Evening Star newspaper also noted the retirement of "William A. Grant, colored," saying of him:

The engineering aide seldom let the passage of years slow him down or keep him from his work. When the day of his retirement arrives, he will have accumulated more than 1,000 hours of sick leave which, he said, "I just never needed."

Mr. Grant, a frugal man, raised four daughters, two of them District school teachers, one a mother of four children and the other, Miss Thelma Grant, his housekeeper. Mr. Grant's wife died in 1948.

Retirement will not mean the end of Mr. Grant's active life. He hopes to devote his time to his favorite hobbies, which he lists as his grandchildren, gardening and baseball, in that order. ["Bureau of Roads Aide Retiring After 50 Years," The Evening Star , November 26, 1955]

William Alphonso Grant, 80 years old, died on August 20, 1966, at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., after a brief illness. At the time, he had eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000