Our Black History – Percy Julian

Percy JulianNPR’s News and Notes has a great interview with actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson on his role in the Nova documentary Forgotten Genius about the life of Percy Julian.

Don’t know who Percy Julian is? Well, you’re not alone. When most folks think of influential black scientists, they think of George Washington Carver. But we owe a lot to Percy Julian, too.

From the Nova website:

Percy Julian was one of the great scientists of the 20th century. In a chemistry career spanning four decades, he made many valuable discoveries, for which he was awarded dozens of patents, 18 honorary degrees, and membership to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences—only the second African-American bestowed such an honor.

Yet Julian’s achievements as a trailblazer for black chemists, while less well-known, are no less remarkable. Growing up when racial discrimination factored into every aspect of life for blacks in America, from riding a bus to getting a job, Julian persevered to realize his dreams. And when he finally “arrived” as a successful chemist and businessman, he did not lose sight of the challenges that fellow blacks still faced. He became a mentor to scores of young black chemists and, later in life, an inspiration for thousands as a civil-rights leader and speaker.

He was the grandson of slaves, suffered through discriminaton in his personal and professional life, yet never gave in. And yet he apparently understood the implications of such summaries of his life and accomplishments:

Later in his life, when the civil-rights movement was in full swing, Julian came to understand how younger African-Americans might see him as an accommodationist. By accepting the prevailing notion that if blacks just worked hard enough, they would succeed, rather than rebelling against the bigotry undergirding that sentiment, he and others of his generation might have unwittingly helped perpetuate the white suppression of black talent, he realized. Julian’s own hallmarks—a focus on education, the pursuit of excellence, and working within the system (the courts and the legislature) to bring about change—were simply no longer enough.

The NPR interview is very interesting and the Nova website a good place to start learning about this excellent man. There’s some stuff about him, about racism in sciene then and now, and bits about the sciene he studied. If you can, catch the documentary on PBS or online after 2/7. Percy Julian definitely deserves to be remembered and celebrated – not just in February, either.


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2 Responses

  1. I saw the NOVA documentary. It was moving, informative, inspiring. I’m a scientist (although not a chemist), but I had never before heard of Percy Julian! Considering the magnitude of his contributions to science, this is very sad.

    Maybe we should send a note to Spike Lee, that here’s a topic for another biopic.

  2. […] PBS seem to be as tired of clichéd Black History Month tributes as I am. Not only did we have the Percy Julian features last week, but there was also a lot of coverage for the Billy Strayhorn documentary […]

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