WHEN NEIGHBORS STOOD UP FOR THEIR BELOVED BLACK CHEMIST
Thursday at 9:15 pm
The Calabar Bean of Nigeria has an alkaloid known as physostigmine – used to treat glaucoma but no one had been able to synthesize the compound until Percy Julian – one of America’s premier chemists of the early 20th Century. This was a formidable challenge for any chemist to tackle in the 1930s. He had fierce competitors from the U.K. also working on the same issue but Percy Julian was adjudged by the science world to have unlocked the marvel.
Percy Julian was instrumental in the development of drugs such as steroids and cortisone. He went on to create his own business that hired black chemists that corporations refused to hire because of their skin color. Percy Julian eventually became a multi-millionaire but one with a conscience. He made sure that the drugs he developed were accessible to all – even those without the financial wherewithal to buy them.
Percy Julian in 1950 was named Chicagoan of the year. He and his wife, who also had a doctorate and very successful in her own field, bought a huge house in Oak Park, IL which arsonists tried to destroy in an attempt to get them to run from the intimidation perpetrated by those who believed blacks should not live anywhere but in ghettos. The arsonists were such bunglers that their attempt to burn the house down failed. Following that episode of terror, the racists tried again using dynamite, but the idiots failed to throw the dynamite through a window, and instead, the explosives bounced off a brick wall of the house and caused nothing more than a huge hole in the garden.
After the hole in the garden incident, hundreds of local residents gathered in front of Percy’s home holding a demonstration declaring that the Percy Julian family – STAYS — with the support of the neighbors who wanted such a gifted man and his family to be part of their community. That show of unity made a difference and the harassment stopped.
So to all those fine Chicagoans who decided to GO DO GOOD and welcome an African American family at a time when such warmth was unheard of, we salute you and Percy Julian during February – a month dedicated to African-American history and the accomplishments of people who often were forced to meet overwhelming odds to enjoy the best America had to offer.