Percy Julian is a familiar presence in Oak Park. A middle school is named in his honor and a bust of Julian sits outside the entrance of the library’s main branch, welcoming those who stop in. Yet not all are aware of the extent of Julian’s impact across multiple spheres — something the Oak Park Public Library’s special collection team is seeking to rectify.
From now until May 11, the library is stepping up its efforts to recognize the brilliant chemist and civil rights activist. In-house exhibits documenting Julian’s many accomplishments are on display at all three library locations. The special collections team is sharing information about Julian on social media to educate those outside of Oak Park. Both the exhibits and social media campaign were launched April 11 in honor of Julian’s birthday. He was born in 1899, the same year as Ernest Hemingway.
“His story is still very inspirational,” said Kathleen Spale, manager of special collections at OPPL. “It’s a testament to what someone can achieve.”
One of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, Julian pushed the boundaries of medicine and discovered several ingenious uses for soybeans, including developing male and female hormones that would be used to prevent miscarriages and fight cancer. His revolutionary work in synthetic chemistry led to the wide-scale, low-cost production of steroids and hormones. Julian was granted over 130 patents during his career and developed treatments for glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis. He also served as a mentor to many young Black scientists.
“It’s remarkable to know the history of him,” said Village Trustee Chibuike Enyia, who serves on the library’s anti-racism advisory team. “He employed tons and tons of Black scientists and really tried to make sure he broke barriers down so that other people could have opportunities.”
Julian, whose grandparents were enslaved, also defied racial terrorism and segregation. Born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 11, 1899 — in the Jim Crow era — Julian overcame deeply entrenched racism and disenfranchisement. He was valedictorian of his class at DePauw University, despite starting as a probationary student, having not had the same educational opportunities afforded to white students. After completing his master’s degree at Harvard University, the institution denied Julian the customary teaching assistantship due to his skin color. He was offered a fellowship in Vienna, Austria, where his work with the humble soybean began.
Back in the United States, after working as a chemist and research director for Glidden Paint Company, Julian started his own company. In 1950, the city of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the Year. That was the same year he moved his family to Oak Park. Their home was firebombed on Thanksgiving Day that year, but he refused to be run out of the village. Julian’s perseverance was inherited by his daughter, Faith, who still lives in that same house.
The special collections team has commemorated other notable historical figures from the Oak Park area in the past, including famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, but for this occasion that special collections is honoring Percy Julian. Along with Spale, the special collections team includes archivist Kheir Fakhreldin and digital archivist Linda Montalbano. Library spokesperson Jodi Kolo assisted in the accompanying social media campaign. Julian’s alma mater lent photographs.
“Percy Julian is another significant figure in Oak Park’s history whose achievements and story are very relevant to the community today and should be remembered, shared, and celebrated around the world,” said Kolo.