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  • Black History is American History – February 23

    February 23, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Percy Julian (1899 – 1975)

    This is another repeat from last year, but his contributions are so important they bear repeating. Percy Julian’s story brings to mind the question, “How farther along would we be, or what has the world lost in the way of knowledge and invention because some child who held a future cure or discovery was kept from reaching his/her full potential?” It is a strange and painful feeling (disconcerting?) to read about someone who has the ability and temperament to advance in a field but is told not to try – because of other folks’ issues. What he eventually was able to give to the world benefits all humankind – including those folks who set fire to his house.

    Percy Julian was born April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. He attended elementary school in Birmingham and moved back to Montgomery, Alabama where he attended high school at the State Normal School for Negroes. Upon graduation in 1916, Julian applied to and was accepted into DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At DePauw, he began as a probationary student, having to take higher level high school classes along with his freshman and sophomore course load. He proved himself well, going on to be named a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society as well as a Phi Beta Kappa member. Finally, upon graduation from DePauw in 1920, he was selected as the class valedictorian. Although he graduated at the top of his class, he was discouraged from seeking admission into graduate school because of potential racial sentiment on the part of his future coworkers and employers. Instead, he took the advice of an advisor and took a position as a chemistry teacher at Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

    After two years at Fisk, Julian was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and moved to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally given an opportunity at graduate level work, Julian excelled. He achieved straight A’s, finishing at the top of his class and received a Masters Degree in 1923. Even with this success, Julian was unable to obtain a position as a teaching assistant at any major universities because of the perception that White students would refuse to learn under a Black instructor. Thus, he moved on to a teaching position at West Virginia State College for Negroes. He left West Virginia and served as an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for two years.

    In late 1935, Percy Julian decided to leave the world of academics and entered the corporate world by accepting a position with the Glidden Company as chief chemist and the Director of the Soya Product Division. This was a significant development as he was the first Black scientist hired for such a position and would pave the way for other Blacks in the future. The Glidden Company was a leading manufacturer of paint and varnish and was counting on Julian to develop compounds from soy-based products which could be used to make paints and other products. Julian did not disappoint, coming up with products such as aero-foam which worked as a flame retardant and was used by the United States Navy and saved the lives of countless sailors during World War II.

    Percy continued his success as he next developed a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from soy beans. These hormones would help to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and would be used to fight cancer and other ailments. He next set out to provide a synthetic version of cortisone, a product which greatly relieved the pain of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The real cortisone was extremely expensive and only rich people could afford it. With Julian’s discovery of the soy-based substitute, millions of sufferers around the world found relief at a reasonable price. So significant was his work that in 1950 the City of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the Year. While the honor should have signaled Julian’s acceptance by his white counterparts in his field and community, when he soon after purchased a home for his family in nearby Oak Park, the home was set afire by an arsonist on Thanksgiving Day 1950. A year later, dynamite was thrown from a passing car and exploded outside the bedroom window of Percy’s children. Despite the fact that many residents of the town relied upon his methods to relieve their pains and provide for their safety, some still could not stand to have him as their neighbor simply because he was Black.

    In 1954, Julian left the Glidden Company to establish Julian Laboratories which specialized in producing his synthetic cortisone. When he discovered that wild yams in Mexico were even more effective than soya beans for some of his products, he opened the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico City, Mexico which cultivated the yams and shipped them to Oak Park for refinement. In 1961 he sold the Oak Park plant to Smith, Kline and French, a giant pharmaceutical company and received a sum of 2.3 million dollars (nearly 16 million dollars today).

    Percy Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry; was the first African American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and the second African American scientist inducted (behind David Blackwell) from any field. Percy Julian was an active fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for their project to sue to enforce civil rights legislation. Julian died on April 19, 1975 in Waukegan, IL.

    More on Percy Julian:

  • Black History is American History – February 22

    February 22, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (1912-2006)

    There are some things we use that we probably never give much thought to as to where they came from or how they were developed. Yet, they have some significance in how we move about in our lives on a daily basis. What is presented here would fit in that category.

    Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born in Monroe, North Carolina and credited her father, Sidney Nathaniel Davidson, with giving her a thirst for discovering things. Her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith was also an inventor.

    Kenner invented a sanitary belt in 1956, with a moisture-proof napkin pocket, and a bathroom tissue holder in 1982 (among other hygienic inventions). The sanitary belt gave women a better alternative for handling their periods. It was patented 30 years after she invented it, because the company who was initially interested in her creation rejected it when they learned that Kenner was African American.

    Although tampons were available to women, they were discouraged from using them because it was considered “indecent.” Another alternative was to use a cloth or rag, but this method was often unsanitary and inconvenient. Women and girls who opted for cloth usually needed to stay indoors during their cycle. Sanitary belts were not only more practical, they were more liberating. It wasn’t until the 1960s that maxi pads became more readily available.

    As for the bathroom tissue holder, Kenner’s design was an improved version of the common holder that allowed the loose end of a bathroom tissue roll to be accessible at all times. She received patent #4,354,643, on October 19, 1982 for this device. Kenner’s prolific creations also include a mountable back washer, patented in 1987, and a carrier attachment for an invalid walker which was patented in 1976. Kenner was sensitive to the needs of the elderly, sick, and physically challenged. The pocket for the walker could hold things such as other medical equipment, papers, or a purse.

    Kenner worked as a professional floral arranger and had her own business in the Washington DC area. Her intent, with her inventions, was to make people’s lives easier.


    Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors by Otha Richard Sullivan

  • Black History is American History – February 21

    February 21, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Septima Poinsette Clark (1898 – 1987)

    Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, May 3, 1898, the second of eight children. Her father Peter Poinsette – who had been born into slavery – and his wife Victoria Warren Anderson, a laundress encouraged her to get an education. Clark attended public school, then worked to earn the money needed to attend the Avery Normal Institute, a private school for African Americans.

    Clark qualified as a teacher, but Charleston did not hire African Americans to teach in its public schools. Instead, she became an instructor on South Carolina’s Johns Island in 1916. In 1919, Clark returned to Charleston to teach at the Avery Institute. She also joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in trying to get the city to hire African-American teachers. By gathering signatures in favor of the change, Clark helped ensure that the effort was successful.

    Clark married Nerie Clark in 1920. Her husband died of kidney failure five years later. She then moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where she continued teaching and also joined the local chapter of the NAACP. Clark worked with the organization—and with Thurgood Marshall—on a 1945 case that sought equal pay for black and white teachers. She described it as her “first effort in a social action challenging the status quo.” Her salary increased threefold when the case was won. Going back to Charleston in 1947, Clark took up another teaching post, while maintaining her NAACP membership. However, in 1956, South Carolina made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups. Clark refused to renounce the NAACP and, as a result, lost her job.

    Clark was next hired by Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, an institution that supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement. She had previously participated in and led workshops there during breaks from school (Rosa Parks had attended one of her workshops in 1955).

    Clark soon was directing Highlander’s Citizenship School program. These schools helped regular people learn how to instruct others in their communities in basic literacy and math skills. One particular benefit of this teaching was that more people were then able to register to vote (at the time, many states used literacy tests to disenfranchise African Americans). In 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over this education project. Clark then joined the SCLC as its director of education and teaching. Under her leadership, more than 800 citizenship schools were created. . Dr. King acknowledged Clark when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 by insisting that she accompany him to Sweden.

    Clark retired from the SCLC in 1970. In 1979, Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award. She received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, in 1982. In 1987, Clark’s second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and Civil Rights, won an American Book Award (her first autobiography, Echo in My Soul, had been published in 1962).

    Clark was 89 when she died on Johns Island on December 15, 1987. Over her long career of teaching and civil rights activism, she helped many African Americans begin to take control of their lives and discover their full rights as citizens.

    Quotes attributed to Clark:

    I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.

    My philosophy is such that I am not going to vote against the oppressed. I have been oppressed, and so I am always going to have a vote for the oppressed, regardless of whether that oppressed is black or white or yellow or the people of the Middle East. I have that feeling.

    I just tried to create a little chaos. Chaos is a good thing. God created the whole world out of it. Change is what comes of it.

  • Black History is American History – February 20

    February 20, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Eddie South (1904 – 1962)

    Eddie South (Edward Otha South) was an American jazz violinist and bandleader born (in Louisiana, Missouri) on November 27, 1904. He is known for having achieved legendary status only after he died. One of the top violinists of the pre-bop era, Eddie South was a brilliant technician who, were it not for the universal racism of the time, would probably have been a top classical violinist. He began his violin studies at a very early age and by age 10, was studying at the Chicago Music College, from which he graduated. Since classical positions were not open to black violinists, he entered the world of jazz in 1921, with assistance from Darnell Howard (a leading jazz violinist of that era), playing with Erskine Tate and Mae Brady. In 1923, he was musical director of Jimmy Wade’s Syncopators in Chicago.

    South’s first recording came in 1923 with Wade’s Moulin Rouge Orchestra. He formed his own band, the Alabamians, in 1927. The group was named after the place they performed in, the Club Alabam, on the corner of Rush and Chicago Streets, a section of Chicago then known as Chicago’s Bohemia.

    Along the way, South also worked with bandleaders Charles Elgar, Henry Crowder, and Freddie Keppard, as well as bassist Milt Hinton, and pianist Billy Taylor. He toured Europe with this band between 1928 and 1930. Having arrived in Europe, he also studied at the Paris Conservatory. While in Budapest, Hungary, in 1929, South took a liking to Gypsy (Roma) music and eventually made it a part of his improvisations. During a tour of Europe in 1937, he performed and recorded with jazz legends Stephane Grappelli, Michel Warlop, and Django Reinhardt (who famously played with his two usable fingers only) in Paris. Among the tunes recorded was Bach’s concerto for two violins – in jazz style.

    Besides recording, he also played on radio and television. From 1947 to 1949 he played in the big bands led by Earl Hines. South also worked in New York and Los Angeles. Nevertheless, despite the exposure he got from working with the biggest names in Jazz, as far as the public was concerned, he stayed unknown for the remainder of his life. He recorded for the Chess and Mercury labels among others. One of his last recordings was produced in 1951, though he last recorded in 1959. South died in Chicago on April 25, 1962, at age 57.