Growing up black in early 1900s Alabama meant growing up with distinct disadvantages.
Inferior access to basic public services.
A constant fear of attack–or worse, lynching.
Percy Julian couldn’t go to highschool with other white people. He couldn’t even go to high school.
Desperate to continue his education, however, Percy signed up for Lincoln Normal School, forcing him to trade biology lessons for blacksmithing lessons.
An unfair education in an unfair city.
And yet, Percy was accepted to DePauw University in Indiana.
As the train pulled away from Alabama, the only home he had ever known, he saw his grandfather’s mauled hand waving goodbye. As a slave, his grandfather had lost two fingers as punishment for learning how to write.
But at Depauw, Percy shook the hand of Kenneth C. Hogate, future editor of the Wall Street Journal, and the man who convinced DePauw to accept Percy.
It was the first white hand Percy ever shook.
And while DePauw let Percy study on campus, his skin color unfairly prevented him from living on campus.
He was forced to live off-campus and figure out a way to make it to class each day, living in unfair, subpar conditions with fellow black classmates.
Percy eventually befriended the Sigma Chi fraternity who let him live with them — in the basement. And that was only if he agreed to wait on them and maintain the boiler.
It wasn’t fair, but Percy pressed on.
His hometown high school, Lincoln Normal School, wasn’t that great of a school. And despite all his hard work, Percy wasn’t able to keep up with his classwork. The college forced him to attend high-school level classes at Indiana Asbury Preparatory Academy.
It wasn’t fair, but Percy didn’t quit.
And yet, Percy graduated in 1920 among the best in his class and a member of both the Sigma Xi honor society and Phi Beta Kappa.
He was set for a strong academic career.
Except every academic door slammed in his face because of his skin color.
No assistantship. No fellowship. No internship. Not even a single graduate school acceptance letter.
Instead, Percy spent two years teaching at the African-American Fisk University in Nashville, TN.
But he worked hard at it, eventually winning a fellowship at Harvard, where he earned his Masters in organic chemistry in 1923.
Life finally broke in his direction.
It was finally treating him “fair”.
Except it wasn’t.
While Harvard would let him study there, he couldn’t teach. The faculty took away his teaching assistantship, deciding that it would “make white students nervous to have a black teacher.”
But he kept working. And in 1929, having graduated from Harvard and now heading the chemistry department at Howard University in D.C., he won the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation fellowship.
He traveled to Vienna, Austria to study with world-renowned chemist Ernst Späth.
Together, they isolated the active ingredient in Corydalis cava — a plant used to treat pain and heart palpitations.
His success continued in 1931 when he graduated with his Ph.D in Chemistry.
Only the third African-American man to do so.
He moved back to DePauw where he taught chemistry–but also worked with another college from his time in Vienna to develop a new drug to treat glaucoma.
The Dean of DePauw was so impressed with Percy’s work that he moved to appoint him as chair of the entire chemistry department.
But the Dean’s colleagues talked him out of it. They were worried how people would react to a black dean.
Any white man with Percy’s track record would’ve been an easy “yes”.
Percy had to sit on the sidelines while another less-accomplished white man unfairly became chair.
His time in academia was over. He was ready to move into corporate work.
Percy was set to accept a job with the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin — but turned down the job when he read a local city statute that: “No Negro should be bed or boarded overnight in Appleton.”
It was a good job that Percy wanted.
But racist laws and attitudes unfairly prevented him from advancing his career like he wanted.
Job after job after job at prestigious chemical companies closed in his face — only after they learned the prestigious scientist they were about to hire was black.
Four years later, he joined chemical giant Glidden in 1936 as their Director of Research for all soy-based products.
His streak of massive successes continued.
He and his team developed lecithin, commonly used for food preservation.
They developed Aer-o-foam, the go-to fire retardant of the US Navy during WWII.
They synthesized stigmasterol, reducing miscarriage rates.
They figured out how to mass produce cortisone.
Which currently was painstakingly created from cow bile. It was so expensive that most consumers were unable to afford its high price.
In 1950, the Chicago Sun-Times named him “Chicagoan of the Year” for his chemistry work.
And not long after, the Chicagoan of the Year moved himself and his family to the quiet Oak Park suburb west of downtown Chicago in a lavish, 15-room house.
But before he and his family could even move in, an angry, white mob firebombed their home. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1950.
Months later, they were again attacked. With dynamite.
Fearing more attacks, Percy and his son could often be seen perched in a tree, shotgun in hand, to deter more violence against his family.
He even hired a private guard to watch the property 24 hours a day.
While the attacks led to a band of community members rallying around them, it didn’t fix the emotional damage that had already been made.
Percy told Time magazine, “We’ve lived through these things all our lives. As far as the hurt to the spirit goes, we’ve become accustomed to that.”
But Percy refused to let unfair physical, verbal, and emotional attacks hinder his work.
Ever the tinkerer, he realized that yams produced cortisol better than soy beans, and so in 1953, he left to form his own company: Julian Laboratories, headquartered in Chicago.
He set out to manufacture cortisol cheaper than other large pharmaceutical companies.
And despite having to build a second factory in Mexico to get around one company’s refusal to sell him the yams he needed, it worked.
In 1961, Percy sold his company for $2.3 million to Smith Kline.
Almost $20 million dollars in today’s dollars.
Percy Julian eventually retired with over 130 patents bearing his name.
The National Academy of Sciences chose Percy to be the first African American chemist they inducted and only the second African American man they ever included.
Life wasn’t fair. But he persisted.
- He had dreams that other people didn’t want him to have. He persisted.
- He lost job opportunities that he deserved to achieve. He persisted.
- The community around him was violently bigoted against him. He persisted.
When life isn’t fair, you can give up or go on. The choice is yours.
It’s easy to be distracted by how you feel when other people treat you unfairly.
It hurts deep in your soul. You’ve been wronged. It feels terrible.
So what. You’re not the only one who has it tough. You’re not the only one who is in pain. You’re not the only one.
Look around you. Life is unfair to everyone. And at the worst possible times. You’re never going to escape from that. But you can make the decision to persist.
To stand your ground. The keep doing things that get you closer to where you want to be.
No amount of bigotry or hate can match the desire of a person possessed by a sense of mission.
So make that your anthem. When life isn’t fair, push harder.