Today in Black History, 4/19/2012 - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

Today in Black History, 4/19/2012


• April 19, 1975 Percy Lavon Julian, research chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, died. Julian was born April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from DePauw University in 1920, Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian and became a chemistry professor at Fisk University. In 1923, Julian earned his Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, but because they were worried that white students would resent being taught by an African American, Harvard withdrew his teaching assistantship. Julian earned his Ph. D. from the University of Vienna and while in Europe found freedom from the racial prejudices that stifled him in the United States. After returning to the U.S. and being denied a professorship at DePauw for racial reasons, in 1936 Julian became director of research for Glidden Company where he worked until 1953. That year, he founded Julian Laboratories, Inc. which he sold in 1961 for $2.3 million. During his career, Julian received more than 130 chemical patents and his work was the foundation for the drug industry’s production of cortisone and birth control pills. In 1947, Julian was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and in 1973 he was the second African American elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1980, the Percy L. Julian Mathematics and Science Center was dedicated on the campus of DePauw University, in 1990 he was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in 1993 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor, and in 1999 the American Chemical Society recognized his synthesis of physostigmine as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.


• April 19, 1992 Joseph B. Williams, Sr., the first African American graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, died. Williams was born in Annapolis, Maryland and graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942. In 1944, he graduated from the academy and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean War. After the war, Williams earned his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1949 and his Master of Laws degree in 1954 from New York University. He was appointed to New York’s Family Court in 1966 and he became an administrative judge of the criminal courts in 1982. In 1986, Williams joined the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Team, a position he held until his retirement.


• April 19, 2003 Charles Sylvan “Cholly” Atkins, dancer and choreographer, died. Atkins was born September 13, 1913 in Pratt City, Alabama. He served in the United States Army Band from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. He first gained fame as half of the tap dancing duo Coles and Atkins. They appeared in the 1949 movie “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” In the late 1950s, Atkins began to choreograph steps for various vocal groups. In 1964, he was hired by Motown Records where he developed routines for acts like The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and others. In 1989, Atkins won the Tony Award for Best Choreographer for the Broadway show “Black and Blue.” He published his autobiography, “Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins,” in 2001.


• April 19, 2007 George D. Webster, hall of fame college football player, died. Webster was born November 25, 1945 in Anderson, South Carolina. He played defensive back for Michigan State University from 1964 to 1966 and was an All-American his last two years. Webster was selected by the Houston Oilers in the 1967 American Football League Draft and that year was the AFL Rookie of the Year. Over his ten season professional career, Webster was a three-time All-Star. Webster was inducted into the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2007, Michigan State established the George Webster Scholarship Fund for former athletes completing their education at the school.

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