Purnell, Silas

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Silas Purnell


Educator, activist

During the course of three-and-a-half decades, Silas Purnell single-handedly enrolled more than 50,000 minority students in institutions of higher education. "No single college recruiter in the history of America has been as successful as Silas [Purnell] at giving students the chance for success and prosperity," Phillip Jackson, project manager for The Black Star Project, told the Chicago Independent Bulletin. Purnell doled out his placement services liberally: he did not care about less than perfect academic transcripts, and he did not worry about a person's inability to pay tuition. What Purnell focused on was the person's desire to succeed.

Sought Out Potential Graduates

Purnell did not necessarily wait for teenagers to generate that desire themselves. He located his office in the basement of a housing project in Chicago's South Side and relentlessly publicized his mission. He would even seek out kids slouched on street corners and verbally accost them about their future plans. Sherwin Clark vividly remembered his encounter with Purnell: he was working as a store clerk when Purnell called him "sorry and trifling." "He really got my dander up by saying I was pitiful," Clark told Emerge. More than pointing out their weakness, Purnell pushed teens to aim high. When they did, Purnell made sure to get them what they needed to succeed: admission to college and money to go. (Clark eventually earned his degree and became Purnell's accountant.)

Silas Purnell was born in 1923 and raised in Chicago, Illinois. His parents had moved from Mississippi to find better lives, but ended up working hard for little pay. His father worked as a railroad porter while his mother raised the couple's nine children at home. Purnell worked for a time in Chicago steel foundries and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, Purnell returned to Chicago and married in 1946. He and his wife Marilyn eventually had five children. Purnell earned a bachelor's degree at the now defunct Sheil Institute in Chicago and studied at Roosevelt University in the 1950s. He landed a job at Coca-Cola's Chicago branch where he spent more than a decade working as a marketing manager.

During the 1960s, a sense of immediacy awakened in Purnell. He became convinced that someone needed to ensure that young blacks sought higher education. If someone did not step forward, Purnell thought "we're going to lose a generation of our young people," as Vernon Jarrett remembered him putting it according to the Chicago Defender. Purnell determined that that someone was him.

Worked Without Pay to Fund Students

In 1966 Purnell left his corporate career to found the educational services division of Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc., a Chicago-based social services agency with roots back to the 1920s. The agency's mission is to help minorities and the disabled lead full and productive lives. Education, Purnell thought, was a key component of a full and productive life. Moreover, "the best way I see for racial reconciliation is through education," he told Robert R. Selles of the World and I. Armed only with his notion that more minorities needed to get a university education, Purnell knew he was taking on a daunting task. He worked his first year without pay, preferring to find funding for students first.

He had a dual mission: to convince teens to pursue education and to find money to send those teens to school. He cast aside traditional indicators of success and embraced the idea that the students he wanted to help would need a lot of support. "I like to work with students nobody else wants," Purnell told Emerge in 1997. "I don't believe in making them jump through hoops to get into college but in making a path for them." The first thing he did was make it easy for his target students to get to him. He worked out of his office in the Dearborn Homes housing project because "the people I am trying to reach live down here," Purnell explained. And for those people, Purnell committed himself to providing an assortment of aid. If a person needed remedial training, he'd find it and get them started. If they needed eyeglasses or shoes, he'd find those too. He networked with more than 200 technical schools, colleges, and universities so that he could match students with the school that best fit their needs. He also landed students thousands of dollars worth of grants and scholarships. Moreover, "he often offered his own money to help young college aspirants and their families," according to Selles.

Once he secured a teen's enrollment, Purnell also made sure the student had transportation to school. Sometimes he bought a plane ticket, and sometimes he drove the student to school in his station wagon. But he made sure each one knew that the trip was "one way." "He told them, 'The only way you're getting home is to graduate. I'll see you when you graduate. Don't worry about coming home. There's nothing for you to do here anyway,'" Furmim Sessoms, former executive director of the NAACP's Southside Branch, related to the Tri-State Defender. But Purnell did not stop his support there. He'd make periodic calls to students or their universities to check on their progress. If trouble arose, Purnell would step in to help. He'd counsel students or seek any necessary help from the university.

Purnell offered all these services for free. Securing funding for his efforts from the U.S. Department of Education's Talent Search Program and millions of dollars in grants over the years, Purnell ensured that he would not have to charge people to help them.

Continued to Help Youth Succeed

With his work at the Ada S. McKinley Community Services agency an ongoing success, Purnell sought other ways to help promote his cause. In the late 1970s journalist Vernon Jarrett approached Purnell with a new idea: he wanted to create an academic challenge for African-American students. Jarrett told the Chicago Defender: "Twenty six years ago, I spoke with him about my creation of a scholastic enhancement program for Black high school students. It was named ACT-SO, and I had presented it to Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, the then new executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ACT-SO is the acronym for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. Purnell was not only impressed, he volunteered the use of his office and staff to help get it off the ground. He saw it as another vehicle to prepare and recruit Black youngsters for college. Today ACT-SO is active in nearly 250 cities. For years Purnell attended every ACT-SO national competition where he egged young people to gain competence and self confidence through extra study, self-reliance, positive dreams and hard work."

At a Glance …

Born in 1923 in Chicago, IL; died on November 1, 2003, in Chicago, IL; married Marilyn, 1946; children: Rosalind, Rolinda, Donna, Ronald, Silas Jr. (deceased). Education: Sheil Institute, Chicago, BA, 1950s; attended Roosevelt University, Chicago. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942–45.

Career: Various steel foundries, Chicago, IL, laborer, 1940s; Coca-Cola, Inc., Chicago, IL, marketing manager, 1950s–1966; Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc., Educational Services Division, Chicago, founder and college placement counselor, 1966–2000.

Awards: Illinois Wesleyan, honorary degree; Chicago State University, honorary degree; Illinois Institute of Technology, honorary degree; numerous scholarships in his name.

By the end of his career, Purnell had become a legend. An almost constant line of college hopefuls appeared at his door. For his work, he accrued many accolades. In addition to honorary degrees and personal recognition, Purnell earned the most fitting honor: scholarships in his name. In the 1990s the Illinois Institute of Technology set up the Silas Purnell Incentive Grant for incoming students who would not receive financial support from their families. The Mid-American Association of Educational Opportunity Program Personnel started offering the Silas Purnell Scholarship in 2000. And the Illinois Student Assistance Commission managed the more-than $8 million Silas Purnell Illinois Incentive for Access Grant Program. Moreover, beginning in 2005 Chicago high schoolers could attend the annual Silas Purnell College Expo, a free event where students could learn about financial aid and college admissions, and meet with representatives from Illinois institutions of higher education as well as representatives from historically black colleges from throughout the country.

Purnell retired in 2000. Three years later, he died at age 80 on November 1. His legacy would be not only the enormous number of students he enrolled, but also how he changed the way students were selected for college. "People got to learn to take the kids the way they are, not the way they want 'em to be…. Quit finding out what's wrong with them—find out what's right with them," Purnell had told Miriam Karmel of Utne. His inspiration lives on.



Black Issues in Higher Education, December 18, 2003, p. 23.

Chicago Defender, November 6, 2003, p. 2.

Chicago Independent Bulletin, December 7, 2000, p. 5.

Chicago Sun Times, November 7, 2003, p. 76.

Chicago Tribune, November 9, 2003, p. 8; November 5, 2005, p. 10.

Emerge, September 1997, p. 60.

Tri-State Defender (Memphis, TN), December 3, 2003, p. 10A.

World & I, August 2002, p. 42.


"Big Man on Campus," Utne Reader, http://www.utne.com/issues/2002_114/short_takes/3177-1.html (March 21, 2007).

"Chicago Man Credited with Sending Thousands to College," CNN.com, http://cnnstudentnews.cnn.com/2001/fyi/teachers.ednews/10/23/college-man.ap/index.html (November 16, 2006).

"Former Ada S. McKinley Community Services' Educational Advocate Dies," Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc., www.adasmckinley.org/news/2003/11042003.htm (November 16, 2006).