This video segment, adapted from NOVA, uses reenactment footage to chronicle the education of Percy Julian, the African American chemist who pioneered the development of synthetic hormones. Julian's early educational years paralleled an educational movement that prepared African Americans for industrial jobs, the growing white supremacist movement, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Julian would eventually move north, and finally to Europe to earn his Ph.D.
Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, during an era of legalized segregation that had begun years earlier, just as the promise of education for African Americans was taking flight.
When the Civil War ended, Reconstruction-era legislation granted African Americans unprecedented freedoms. In many southern states, education for African Americans became legal for the first time, and new schools sprouted up across the South. However, the Compromise of 1877 then put an end to Reconstruction and efforts to protect the rights of African Americans.
During the 1880s and 1890s, southern states enacted laws designed to dismantle Reconstruction policies and restore political, economic, and social power to white elites. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate public facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were equal, thereby establishing the "separate but equal" doctrine. However, separate facilities for whites and blacks were never equal.
When Julian started school in the early 1900s, getting an education was difficult for African Americans. There were few black schools, and inadequate state funding left them overcrowded, in disrepair, and with far fewer resources than white schools. It was not uncommon for black students to walk several miles in each direction to school, or for students to bring their own firewood in order to have heat.
The plight of black schools caught the attention of some northern philanthropists and southern school reform supporters who tried to improve education for African Americans. Some believed that an industrial education could provide a means for training African Americans to work in a changing and growing economy. Among them was former-slave-turned-educator Booker T. Washington, who led Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school designed to educate and train freed slaves and their children. Others advocated for full educational rights and a more liberal-arts education for African Americans. These proponents included the black scholar and N.A.A.C.P. founder W.E.B. DuBois. White missionary societies also funded a handful of private black colleges in the South that focused on teacher training.
However, white resistance to educating African Americans was immense. Because the local agricultural economy depended on and exploited black workers, many whites opposed any formal education for African Americans for fear that they would leave the low-paying agricultural and service jobs. Few public black schools went beyond the eighth grade; in Alabama, there were none. White employers often fired black employees for attending school. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans by burning schools, randomly beating and murdering teachers and students, and intimidating others from attending.
In 1916, Julian moved north to pursue his education. He attended high school and DePauw University in Greencastle Indiana, graduating with honors, and went on to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some colleges in the North accepted a handful of black students, but the social climate was unwelcoming and the opportunities limited. Ultimately, Julian moved to Europe to earn his Ph.D.
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