The following is an excerpt of remarks by Faith Julian at the Oak Park Education Foundation's recent dedication ceremony for the BASE Camp mural in honor of her father, Dr. Percy Julian, at his namesake middle school. To read her entire speech, please visit the OPEF website.
About a month ago I was in a taxicab that went down Ridgeland Avenue. I caught a glimpse of this mural … this beautiful tribute to my father, as yet unfinished. I saw the words "go farther." I remembered that those words were from a poem titled, "The Seventh Fold," by Donald Adams. It is about a man who is trying to find a huge hill and the ground beneath him is swampy and treacherous. The distances beckon him, but he is hesitant because he wants to know what waits for him beyond that seventh fold. The poem ends with the climber saying to himself, take heart, go farther on. My father loved this poem because in many ways it symbolized his own personal struggle and the uncertainty as to what might lie ahead.
My dad was a man who would never give up. In his unfailing determination, a voice whispered to him, "Take heart, go farther on."
My father was, among many things, a dreamer. He dreamt about the outcome of atoms shifting positions or traveling the secret pathways of electrons, spinning about their orbits. He dreamt about world peace, as well as the eradication of racism and the brotherhood of man.
In his wildest imagination, however, he never would have dreamt that Oak Park would erect a middle school that would bear his name. He would have been so proud of this school.
At one point, my dad thought of being a musician. He played the piano and the saxophone. At another time he toyed with the idea of being an actor. He was extremely dramatic and a great orator and a great poet. I used to tell him he was a genius, but he always said that wasn't true.
When he was in the seventh grade he decided he wanted to be a chemist. In his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, he climbed a fence and peered into the window of a high school chemistry class at a white high school. A police officer yanked him off the fence, admonishing him never to go there again. After that day, dreams of test tubes danced in his head and dreams of being a chemist were born.
When my dad finished eighth grade, there was no public high school that African Americans could attend. As a result of his educational deficiencies, when he entered DePauw University, he was classified as a sub-freshman, which meant he had to carry his college courses along with the high school classes in which he was deficient. Yet he still managed to graduate valedictorian of his class.
Now tell me he wasn't a genius.
When my dad went off to college, three generations of hope went with him to the train station. There was his 99-year-old great-grandmother who had once picked a record 350 pounds of cotton in one day. There was his grandfather, waving a hand from which two fingers were missing, the penalty for a slave for learning to write. And there were his parents. Seeing them all there that day served as a reminder to my dad of the wrongs of slavery and strengthened his resolve and determination to achieve.
My father thought his academic honors would win him admission to the best schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Instead, the top schools sent letters to his dean at DePauw with virtually the same theme. The letters went something like this: "Please discourage your bright young Negro lad from pursuing a graduate degree. There is no future for Negroes in chemistry. Encourage him to go south and teach at a Negro college."
My father was not daunted by racism. In fact, it raised its ugly head many times throughout his life.
Consider his arrival at DePauw University as an incoming freshman. He had to walk the streets for three days before he could find anyone who would serve him food. Consider also his travels to Appleton, Wisconsin in 1950 to introduce to the paper industry there a product he had discovered, only to be thrown out of the inn.
Consider also that, while employed as an executive and traveling to Michigan and Wisconsin for a period of 10 years, he had to sleep in his car an average of a dozen times per year because he could not find hotel accommodations. Consider also, my father's initial greeting upon moving here to Oak Park. My parents' pioneering spirit and dedication to the belief that people had the right to live wherever they choose helped them survive the bombing of our home, the attempted arson that threatened our lives. Frightening as it was, my parents were determined to stay. They were forced to maintain a guard for three years because they couldn't get police protection.
Racism, however, did not paralyze him or keep him from dreams or believing in himself. My father was a staunch believer in education and the pursuit of excellence, in developing every fiber of potential in one's being and in doing one's very best.
My father left a legacy of scientific achievement. He had over 150 patents. My dad was known as "the soybean chemist." He achieved unprecedented acclaim for his low-cost synthesis of cortisone. He made it from soybeans, and later from a wild yam. Prior to his synthesis, cortisone was obtained from the bile of oxen and it cost hundreds of dollars a drop. With my dad's synthesis, it became easily affordable at pennies a drop and became widely available to people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, lupus, allergies, multiple sclerosis and other inflammatory conditions.
My dad synthesized a drug used initially to treat the eye disease glaucoma. Today, it is used to treat Alzheimer's. He also synthesized, again from soybeans, the sex hormones progesterone and testosterone. Progesterone was used to prevent women from a miscarriage and later went into the first birth control pill that went on the market in the early 1960s.
He developed a fire-fighting foam, which was used in World War II to put out gasoline and oil fires on ships and airplanes and saved countless lives. In his later years my dad developed liquid crystals, which are materials that, when liquified, diffract light and change colors similar to the effect one sees when a prism turns. In fact, you may have an LCD television at home.
My dad has left a great legacy for the students at this school to uphold. My father was a humanitarian as well as a scientist. He believed the humanities are as important as the sciences because, through them, man learns to live harmoniously with his fellow men.
My father was a great and enthusiastic gardener … and once planted 10,000 tulips by himself. On a walk through the woods, he could name almost every tree by the shape and color of the leaves. Once when he brought into the house a beautiful bouquet, I remember he remarked, "Why can't human beings of all colors live and thrive together just as flowers do?"
My father would ask you to remember that through all one's sorrows in life, there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. Your school is a testimony to that fact. In naming the school after Percy Julian, the grandson of slaves, the Oak Park Board of Education honored an American ideal — that a man is to be judged by his mind, his spirit and the content of his character, not the color of his skin.
The students at this school are indeed America's future. You have so much to look forward to and so much to give. Without a doubt, life will hold some disappointments, but I hope you will always remember that for every cloud, there is a ray of light. For every ounce of human evil there is a ton of human good.
To the students here today, my father's message would be that no matter what obstacles face you in life, dare to overcome them. Dare to dream. Dare to believe in yourself. Do your best at whatever you undertake. Make yourself proud. He would have said there are some things that are everlastingly right and some things everlastingly wrong, and there can be no compromise between the two.
He would have reminded you that all of his life he fought injustice and inequality. He would have told you that, unless we can come to know each other better, there will never be racial peace in our borders. He would have been inspired by the hope which you represent. He would have wanted you to remember that there are other people over your mountain, and he would have challenged you to keep the flame burning.
Faith Julian is a longtime resident of Oak Park.
Answer Book 2018
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