Black History Month Innovators: Percy Julian

Early in first-semester college English, I ask students to research and write a story about people who have made great achievements, but who are less well-known than they ought to be. Black history month should be “real history month,” and until it is, we need to remember and tell the stories we can lest they be forgotten entirely.

I first got the idea for the assignment when I was watching television back in the day when I still had time to do so. Flipping casually through the channels, I saw a beautiful field of flowers and heard a mellifluous voice intoning,

Consider the lilies of the field: they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed like one of these.

Soon, I heard the familiar PBS Nova theme song and saw the title “Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius.” I was hooked and raptly watched the entire program. It was one of the most gripping, beautifully-made and dynamic documentary films I have ever seen. It was made by award-winning documentary filmmaker Llewellyn M. Smith, who has made some other outstanding films about the African-American (American) experience.

I am personally grateful to Percy Lavon Julian, a man I believe to be the most significant American chemist of the 20th century. For all of the medicines, he created, for all of the chemical processes he invented, and for his approach, the one that was born in him, which led to his creation of medications derived from natural plants, particularly corticosteroids — and over 250 patents. The most important thing about Percy’s approach was that it was always safe and always natural. None of the medicines he developed have ever been found to be addictive or dangerous in any way.

Today, we see that Julian not only faced Jim Crow racism as the second African-American to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry.  His house was firebombed by racists — not once, but twice — but also the commercial and exploitive and uncreative mentality that has created poisonous chemical processes, poisonous, addictive medicines — and that keeps natural and safe medication out of people’s hands.

Addiction and permanent illness are profitable to a few, and those few wish our world to permanently privilege themselves and their heirs while the rest serve those needs exclusively. That is something I am confident Percy Julian knew far better than I could ever understand.

He was a brilliant black man who made safe, non-addictive, life-giving medicine from plants.

Black History Month


We can’t have that now, can we?

So, here is the meaning of Percy Julian’s story.

Percy Julian was an American hero and great scientist who battled the inextricably intertwined evils of racism, patriarchy, and predatory capitalism.

In the PBS film, Julian’s speech to the American Chemical Society is dramatized by actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson:

The story I will tell you tonight is a story of wonder and amazement, almost a story of miracles. It is a story of laughter and tears. It is a story of human beings, therefore, a story of meanness, of stupidity, of kindness and nobility.

He relates the story of how as a young boy, he went out picking berries on his grandfather’s farm in Alabama.

I shall never forget how beautiful life seemed to me that morning, under the spell of an Alabama forest. But in the midst of that beauty, I came across a Negro body hanging from a tree. He had been lynched a few hours earlier. He didn’t look like a criminal; he just looked like a scared boy.

On the way back, I encountered and killed a rattlesnake. For years afterward, every time I saw a white man, I involuntarily saw the contours of a rattlesnake head on his face. Many years later, a reporter asked me what were my greatest nightmares from my childhood in the South. I told him, ‘White folks and rattlesnakes.’

Percy was a “first” in so many ways; they can hardly be counted. They are almost not worth being counted, except to say that few people alive today can envision the multitudinous obstacles he faced and overcame in order to do chemistry. Obstacles as multitudinous as the lilies of the field he planted at his home in Oak Park, Illinois late in life.

Often I have thought of his regret, his lament, toward the end of his life.

What might I have accomplished had I not had to face the obstacles I faced?

He knew he had only done a tiny portion of the great chemistry that he held within his vast and wide-ranging genius mind because he spent most of his time combating racism, bias, and ignorance. He spent his time fighting for and protecting his beloved family. He spent his much of his time fighting battles with people trying to steal his ideas, take credit for his work, rip him off, or ruin his company or reputation. Not just “occasionally” — his entire life.

And the story of Percy Julian, the most significant American chemist of the 20th century isn’t just one of a great African American who faced down the odds and overcame the racism “of his time.” This racism continues to this day, not so overt and obvious, but omnipresent all the same.

The story of Percy Julian invites us to all ask ourselves what we lack in our own lives because our society makes it so very hard for people like Percy Julian and all the other great geniuses to do their work.

Homeless people don’t just lack a place to live while there are ten or more vacant homes or apartments for each.

Little children don’t just go hungry when we waste 40% of the food that is produced.

A $trillion is not just spent every year on war — at the same time our bridges and roads crumble for lack of repair and investment.

We probably would be traveling to other planets right now — if the geniuses who could come up with the solutions weren’t directed into making polluting machines, designing addictive online games, or merely abandoned as misfits, huddled on a street corner, neglected and overlooked.

That great novel you never read is on someone’s computer right now, and its author may even have sent it to publishers and received one — a dozen — a hundred — rejections. The great movie you never saw had a script that was never read. There probably is a cure for cancer, and we already know many of the medical benefits of a natural plant: cannabis.

Percy Julian’s story is our story and the economic and social losses engendered by what he had to face and overcome just to do what he was born to do are unlimited.

Watch his story here: