The Odyssey of Naudin Oswell, WPI’s First Black Graduate
Facing an uncertain future, the Worcester native became a pioneering leader in public housing, investment banking
WPI graduate Naudin Oswell ’30 managed South Jamaica Houses in New York City, the first fully integrated public housing in the United States.
In the fall of 1919, Worcester native Naudin Oswell—who would become WPI’s first Black graduate—set foot on WPI’s campus.
By yearbook accounts, the young man known as “Osie” and “Dutchie” was a popular and well-rounded student. He studied electrical engineering. He ran track and played soccer and football. And he got along well with his classmates. He was, as the yearbook notes, “a consistent and diligent worker.”
“Osie is another Worcester boy whom Tech has made,” reads a yearbook passage.
But the making of Naudin Joseph Oswell is more complex than friendly passages in a yearbook.
As it turns out, Oswell did not graduate with his incoming Class of ’23. He didn’t even graduate with the Class of ’24, where his yearbook portrait appears. According to the WPI Registrar’s office, he graduated with the Class of ’30, more than a decade after arriving at WPI. In between, Oswell experienced disappointments, racial discrimination, and an uncertain future.
But through it all, the young man who grew up in a triple-decker at 21 Bancroft St. in the city’s Main South neighborhood went on to embody WPI’s motto of “theory and practice,” say current WPI researchers familiar with his story. Oswell became – by sheer talent, will and tenacity of spirit – a pioneering leader in public housing in the United States, as well as a trailblazing figure in the investment banking community.
Oswell, who died in 1989 at the age of 87 in Sag Harbor, N.Y., left a lasting imprint, and is viewed as an important figure in WPI’s history.
“Naudin Oswell had an outstanding career and I think WPI played a role in his becoming that leader,” says Crystal Brown, an assistant professor of Social Science at WPI. “He became a leader in integrating housing in the United States as well as influencing the world of finance.”
A strong foundation amid systemic barriers
To get a sense of who Oswell was—and what he wanted to become—one needs to start at the turn of the 20th century and consider the era in which he came of age as a young adult. He was born Aug. 10, 1901, in Worcester, the oldest child of Joseph and Maggie (Naudin) Oswell, according to Worcester City Clerk’s Office records. He had two siblings, Charles and Sylvia.
He attended Worcester public schools and graduated from Worcester South High School in 1919. As Professor Brown notes, the era from the late teens throughout the 1920s was a time of extreme change and strife in the United States. The country entered World War I in 1917, endured the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic starting in 1918, and coped with the Great Depression throughout the 1920s. “The great Red Scare was also going on as people were afraid of the threat of Communism in the United States,” she says.
Meanwhile, on the WPI campus, Oswell was working hard in his electrical engineering classes. In fact, Harold Smith, head of the Electrical Engineering department at that time, had submitted Oswell’s name for consideration for an internship with a major national food company. “He is a superior man of his class and I can recommend him most strongly,” Smith wrote in a letter to an executive at the food company dated April 25, 1923. “He is gentlemanly and not afraid to work.”
But the executive’s response reflected a cold reality of the times. “In regard to Mr. Oswell, who I believe you said is colored, I would like very much to give him an opportunity, but the company objects to hiring colored men in this department,” read the typed response from the food executive.
Perhaps trying to soften the blow, the executive added a post-script in cursive below his signature: “P.S., I would like to give this man a chance the same as the others, but it is against the policy of the company. The color line is a little stronger down here and they do not mix very well.”
The letters, which are contained in WPI’s Archives, reveal a painful time in American history, says Archivist Arthur Carlson. But he also says that Smith should be commended for recommending Oswell. “Smith clearly advocated for Oswell at a time when it wasn’t always popular to do so,” says Carlson. “He knew that this student before him had talent and could help this company.”
According to Brown, the rejection and outright discrimination Oswell faced could have led him to stray from his path of becoming an electrical engineer. To be sure, it is unclear what Oswell did from 1924 to 1930, when he ultimately graduated.
Opportunity beckons in New York City
Brown says Oswell’s ultimate landing spot of New York City could have stemmed from the sense of greater opportunity in a larger and more diverse city. She speculated that the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, and literature, could have attracted Oswell. “This was a period of time of the Harlem Renaissance that saw Black people involved in the arts, business and other endeavors,” she says. “It was also the rise of the Black bourgeoisie, so it makes sense that New York City was the place to move to.”
By the late 1930s, Oswell and his wife, Louise, were living with Naudin’s brother, Charles, at 539 Manhattan Ave. in New York City, according to census records. Charles was a postal clerk and Naudin was a supervisor for the Department of Public Records. By 1942, Naudin and Louise were living on 159th Street in Jamaica, Queens, according to his War II registration card.
At 41, Oswell was listed as working for the New York City Housing Authority. From 1942 to 1963, he seemed to flourish in his role managing some of the nation’s biggest public housing. During his career, he managed Marcy Houses, Kingsbridge, and Brownsville in Brooklyn; South Jamaica Houses in Queens; and Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City.
In a story in The New York Times on Sept. 11, 1948, titled “Small Town Ideas Help Big Housing,” Oswell was featured prominently for his housing leadership. “The value of developing a “small-town attitude” among big city apartment house dwellers was extolled yesterday by Naudin Oswell, manager of Marcy Houses, a 1,717-apartment project of the New York City Housing Authority,” the lead paragraph reads.
The story notes that Oswell was delivering an address during the closing session of the National Association of Housing Officials. In the piece, Oswell espoused the value of what he called “stair-hall” meetings, where tenants can informally gather and share best practices for housekeeping and other household activities. “Such gatherings promote the tenants’ welfare and help improve tenant-management relations, Mr. Oswell said,” the story noted.
Oswell related one story in which a tenant—on the “misguided advice of another woman”—had placed cod liver oil into water to wash an asphalt-tile surface, which ruined the floor and raised an odor. Oswell was able to suggest a more practical method to clean the floors.
Brown, who has read the article, says Oswell’s recounting the story shows his caring and deliberative manner, which she says was very likely honed at WPI. “He was not condescending to the woman,” Brown says. “Rather he was really showing how he was applying practical knowledge. To me, this clearly shows that he got something out of WPI.”
By the mid-1950s, Oswell—still employed by the New York City Housing Authority—had ventured into another area: finance. Specifically, he became the treasurer for Special Markets, Inc., the first black-owned investment brokerage firm on Wall Street, according to a brief news item in Jet magazine on Aug. 4, 1955. “The firm has an interracial staff and board of directors,” the news item noted.
Oswell continued working for the housing authority until the early 1960s before moving to Port Jervis, N.Y., upon retirement. He was lauded in a story in The New York Daily News on Nov. 20, 1980, for serving as the first manager of South Jamaica Houses. “South Jamaica Houses was an experiment in the U.S.,” Oswell told the paper, adding that it was the first fully integrated public housing in the United States. “In South Jamaica, every floor had somebody of something.”
Brown, who researches integration policies, said Oswell was clearly working toward integrating America. “When you talk about integration, it’s always about bridging that gap,” she says. “Somebody has to be willing to show people how they can live and work together, and be together in the community. And Oswell seemed to be that person.”
Reflections and a lasting legacy
Until a week ago, Evans Owusu ’24 had never heard of Naudin Oswell. But the Worcester native, who spent his high school years living in the same Main South section of the city where Oswell grew up, has become a quick study. He’s read the newspaper clippings about Oswell, pored over his yearbook, and has reached a telling conclusion.
“After reading about him, I honestly thought he was an incredible person,” says Owusu, who is double majoring in computer science and Interactive Media and Game Development. “His experience in housing and finance is truly inspiring.” Owusu took note of Oswell’s approach to communicating with tenants. “He seemed to be focusing on the holistic approach of dealing with people,” he says. “I liked how he showed a small piece of humanity in dealing with tenants. That helps the whole community.”
Owusu said he can relate to the notion of “stair-hall” discussions even at WPI. “For me, it’s walking with friends and talking about problems and issues. Seeing that aspect in someone else is heartwarming,” he says. “It’s a way of saying, ‘We’re in this together.’ ”
Ultimately, in recalling Naudin Oswell, Carlson says that WPI is taking a conscious look at the institution’s past to see how it has contributed to shaping graduates’ futures. “This isn’t just about celebrating Naudin Oswell’s achievements,” says Carlson. “It’s about understanding the struggles that led to those achievements.”
“Change can—and will—happen”
Rame Hanna, director of Diversity & Inclusive Excellence at WPI, has reviewed the documents and stories related to Naudin Oswell. They offer their thoughts and insights about Oswell and his lasting impact at WPI, in higher education, and throughout society.
Why is it important for the WPI community to know about Naudin Oswell?
RH: I believe it is critical that we honor the heritage of Black and African American history at WPI, especially the legacy of WPI’s first Black graduate, Naudin Oswell. It is imperative that we understand our history, that not long ago access to higher education was reserved for the few, and especially that our core values as a community are founded on a legacy of access, equity, and social justice.
Do you see values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the work that Oswell did?
RH: I see Oswell as the embodiment of social justice in his triumph over the normalized culture of segregation and oppression of the 1920s. Oswell’s accomplishments not only spoke truth to power by challenging systems of oppression and privilege, but his work for the first Black-owned investment brokerage firm in New York City paved the way for the change we are seeing today.
What do you think will be Oswell’s lasting legacy?
RH: Oswell has advanced equitable access and opportunity to all in higher education, especially those with marginalized and underrepresented identities. His legacy is one of trailblazing perseverance through racial segregation and relentless systemic and structural oppression. It is a reminder that change can—and will—happen.
To read more about WPI’s sustainable inclusive excellence initiatives, visit the following: