Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Dr. Ellis was also a passionate educator who worked with Black students and preferred to teach those who lacked experience in the field.
Ellis was born May 11, 1943 and raised in the tough South Side section of Chicago. As a teen, Ellis and took a graveyard shift job as a computer operator to help his struggling family. But his supervisors didn’t allow him to actually work on the computer, instead assigning him menial tasks.
But Ellis’ curiosity would get the best of him, and he studied the computer manuals to the point that he knew the inner workings better than anyone. By way of his church, he was able to attend Beloit College and earned his bachelor’s degree in Math and Physics as there were no computer science courses at the school.
He enrolled in MIT, but left to involve himself in civil rights activism. Ellis eventually entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned his Master’s and a Ph.D. in computer science from the school. From that point on, Ellis worked at some of the world’s most prestigious companies and universities, including Xerox, IBM, Los Alamos Scientific Labs among other places.
Ellis devoted himself to teaching under-represented youth the virtues of computer science. Ellis was also a leading pioneer of the computer technology known as “groupware,” which allows several users to collaborate on a document at the same time. That technology helped develop programs like Microsoft’s Sharepoint and Google Docs.
Another computer invention Ellis is often credited with is the clicking of icons on a computer screen to send a command to the machine. In 2013, Ellis won a Fulbright grant and was teaching at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana.
Ellis taught “World Simulation: Culture, Technology and Ethics” at the school, which examined how world governments would flourish if they turned their focus on ethical, economic and social balance.
Along with his distinction in the field of computer science, Ellis was also the first African-American fellow named to the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM).
Ellis died on May 17th. He was 71.
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