UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Introducing the ‘Noble Nine’

‘Empowered by Our Past’ event honors first students of color at UND

In this historical photo from 1899, James Duty, UND’s first Black student, is pictured in the second row from the top, third in from the left.

Editor’s note: In the UND LEADS Strategic Plan, the Equity core value calls on the University to “invest in diverse area studies, programs and initiatives that will help faculty, staff and departments enhance DEIA efforts.” The story below, which UND Today first published on March 19, reports on an effort to help UND learn more about nine of the University’s first students of color — in other words, about the diversity of UND’s own history 


Last Friday, members of the campus community gathered at the Memorial Union to celebrate the legacy of nine of UND’s first students of color.

Stacey Borboa-Peterson, director of student diversity and inclusion at UND, said the impetus behind the event, called “Empowered by Our Past,” came from a recently hired peer educator in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion. Peterson said the student employee noticed a portrait of Era Bell Thompson – a member of the Noble Nine – and asked whether she was UND’s first black graduate.

The inquiry prompted Borboa-Peterson and her team to dig deeper into UND’s student archives to find the answer.

“I was like, ‘I actually don’t know,’ and thought, ‘That’s probably something I should know,’ ” Borboa-Peterson told UND Today before the event. “This summer, we really started to dive into that. Our staff spent significant time over in special collections, working to identify our earliest students of color. At one point, we were in the library looking at some of the first transcripts from UND, which was pretty cool.”

“It immediately became clear that students of color have been a part of the University of North Dakota since its beginning,” Borboa-Peterson added.

The event emphasized the importance of legacy.

“We’re looking at how we can connect and inspire current and future students based on who came before them,” Borboa-Peterson said. “We want to help students understand that they are part of UND’s foundation.”

Borboa-Peterson kicked off the event by stating that 1894 was “a pivotal moment in the institution’s early history.” That’s when Hilyard James Duty of Fargo became the first student of color to enroll at UND, after transferring from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

In addition to his success in the classroom, Duty starred on both the track and football field at UND.

According to Peterson, Duty came from a family committed to a life of service. His father fought for the 8th United States Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War – a Union Army regiment consisting entirely of African American men.

Borboa-Peterson then introduced the Noble Nine — so named because they were the first nine students of color to attend UND, and because “they did amazing things,” she said.

Nine portraits — six of which are shown here — of the members of UND’s ‘Noble Nine’ were on display at the Memorial Union as part of the University’s ‘Empowered by Our Past’ event. Photo by Joe Banish/UND Today.

The Noble Nine

  • Hilyard James Duty: Graduated in 1900, Bachelor of Arts
  • Takeo Igawa: Graduated in 1913, Engineering and Mining
  • Min Hin Li: Graduated in 1920, Bachelor of Arts Special in Medicine
  • Tuan Sheng Chien: Graduated in 1920, Bachelor of Arts
  • Azzie Z. Tucker: Graduated in 1925, Bachelor of Science in Arts and Medicine
  • Era Bell Thompson: Matriculated in 1925, College of Arts
  • Edna Yuki Tetsoka: Graduated in 1933, Bachelor of Arts
  • Clarissa Benjamin: Graduated in 1935, Bachelor of Science in Education-Physical Education
  • Thomas Boutrous: Graduated in 1934, Bachelor of Arts; graduated in 1935, School of Medicine

Highlighting the theme of legacy, Peterson said that since 1934, 15 members of the Boutrous family have attended UND. And in attendance on Friday at “Empowered by Our Past” were Debbie Trent and Patti Myers, whose mother, Sylvia Boutrous, graduated from UND in 1955 with a Bachelor of Science in Education.

Trent and Myers, along with Sheryl and Kyra Lasota — granddaughter and great-granddaughter, respectively, of Min Hin Li — participated in a panel discussion about their family members’ experiences at UND.


From left to right: Stacey Borboa-Peterson, director of student diversity and inclusion, Sheryl Lasota, Kyra Lasota, Debbie Trent and Patti Myers discuss the legacies of Min Hin Li and Sylvia Boutrous, two of UND’s first students of color. Photo by Joe Banish/UND Today.

Kyra Lasota spoke of Li’s resiliency, noting that he returned to UND to obtain his degree after serving in World War I. She added that Li’s participation in a wide range of student groups at UND exemplified his curiosity and and spirit of discovery, despite his being one of few Asian-American students on campus at the time.

“He was often the only Asian-American in the group, but he still decided to pursue these things because he knew exactly what we wanted and liked,” she said. “My mother mentioned earlier that this is a great place to find yourself. North Dakota is a wonderful place – the view, the sky, the great land around you – you can really have this moment of self-discovery. I believe he really thought that here.”


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