On July 19, Landmarks Illinois and the Oak Park Public Library presented a virtual program entitled, “Dr. Percy Julian, An American Story That is Home to Oak Park.” The presentation covered the lives of Percy and Anna Julian, through their groundbreaking educational years and Percy Julian’s work as a chemist to the couple’s humanitarian and civil rights contributions while living in Oak Park. 

The program also touched on possible preservation options for the home of the noted scientist.

Kathleen Spale, manager and curator of special collections for the library, presented the program, highlighting Percy Julian’s education and career.

Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, Julian’s parents prized education, but there were few opportunities for him to pursue his education in the South. He went to DePauw University for college, where he was not allowed to live in the dormitories because he was Black.

Dr. Percy Julian was a renowned and prolific chemist who submitted more than 130 patents in his lifetime. | Courtesy of The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest

He graduated as valedictorian of his class. After getting his master’s degree at Harvard, he went to the University of Vienna to study for his Ph.D. Julian was the third Black man in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. 

His work in the scientific field led him to file more than 130 patents, and he was pivotal in the development of drugs to treat glaucoma, reproductive issues and arthritis.

Percy’s wife, Anna, overcame similar racial barriers in her pursuit of an education. Born in Baltimore in 1902, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in sociology in the United States.

After their marriage, the Julians lived in Maywood. When the family outgrew their house, the couple bought a home in nearby Oak Park.

As they were preparing to move into the home at 515 N. East Ave. in 1950, an arsonist set fire to their home. In 1951, someone threw dynamite at the house. The Julians hired security guards to protect their family. 

In spite of Julian’s professional success, Oak Park was not always welcoming to the family. Percy Jr., Faith, and Rhoddy were the only Black children enrolled in their schools throughout their education in Oak Park, and the family received threats throughout the children’s time in school. 

Percy Julian passed away in 1975 and Anna died in 1994. Percy Julian Jr. became a noted civil rights attorney. He passed away in 2008, leaving Faith the sole member of the family living in the family’s East Avenue house.

Delinquent taxes and GoFundMe

In September 2021, facing the possible tax sale of the home, Faith Julian went to the Oak Park Public Library seeking help to set up a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising $1,150,000. 

At that time, she indicated that she owed $117,040 in delinquent taxes from the years of 2018 through 2020 and that the home was in need of maintenance that she could not afford. 

As of July 26, the GoFundMe had raised $39,088, with additional funds received by Julian directly via mail. 

She currently owes as of August 1, 2023, $39,451.39 in taxes for 2021, and $19,512.99 for the first installment in taxes for 2022. The Cook County Assessor estimates the market value of the home at $1,100,000.

Originally scheduled to take part in the virtual program on July 19, Julian said her health kept her from participating, but in a prerecorded message she stated that the majority of money raised was used to pay taxes for tax years 2019 and 2020 and that only $2,000 remained in the account.

Landmarks Illinois engaged

In April 2022, when the library had an exhibit on Percy Julian, Faith Julian spoke with Spale and shared her desire to save her house. Spale recalled speaking with Leila Wills, now the program manager with Landmarks Illinois, when Wills spoke about her efforts to landmark the Fred Hampton House in Maywood.

“I don’t know home preservation, but I know that some of the documents and information Faith was sharing were very important,” Spale said. “I thought we could ask Leila and she would have some ideas about the house. She connected me with Kendra Parzen.”

Parzen, who is the advocacy manager for Landmarks Illinois, has been talking with Spale about possible ways to preserve the Julian home and honor the Julian family.

“In terms of a timeline for finding a preservation solution for a property, we’re in the early stages,” Parzen said.

She called the July 19 program a kickoff and says raising awareness of the Julian story is the first step in a long process.

In her pre-recorded message, Julian stated that it was her vision that the family home become a learning center for children and adults to learn about her parents and how to be humanitarians.

The home, which was built in 1908 and designed by architect Thornton Herr, is protected as a contributing structure in the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historical District, but it has not been individually landmarked.

Parzen notes that the house, which is a Prairie Style dwelling with Tudor influences, would easily qualify for landmark status, not only because of its architecture but also for its connection to Percy Julian.

“To have a home with this magnitude and this importance does not happen a lot,” Parzen said. “It’s very much unique.”

Although she declined Wednesday Journal’s interview request for this article due to her health, in 2021 Faith Julian told the newspaper that the village cited her for code violations for needed repairs. The garage has a hole in the roof from a falling tree. Paint, concrete and exterior maintenance are all needed. 

Representatives from Landmarks Illinois have not been in the house and say any assessment of the amount of work needed to maintain the exterior and interior has not been completed.

“She has had the house assessed, and it does have some significant needs,” Parzen said. “It’s possible that further assessment is needed. This is something that Landmarks Illinois could assist with. We’re hoping to have those conversations.”

Although they have not had in-depth, in-person meetings with Faith Julian yet, Parzen says, “We know she has some of her father’s papers. It’s very important to include those in the strategy for the home. Whether they stay in the home or go elsewhere, it’s important to preserve them.”

Landmarks Illinois often assists owners of significant homes with preservation plans. One tool in their toolbox is to establish a nonprofit. Parzen says that unrestricted gifts could go to pay any property taxes owed on the property.

“For very understandable reasons, people are more inclined to donate to a 501c3,” Parzen said.

While emphasizing that Landmarks Illinois is in the beginning stages of working with Julian to assess the immediate next steps, Parzen thinks there would be a lot of people who would love to see the house saved and contribute to its future. 

“There could be a very broad, national interest in trying to save this house,” Parzen said.

Anyone interested in helping with the effort to preserve the Julian house can reach out to Kendra Parzen with Landmarks Illinois at kparzen@landmarks.org

To donate visit Faith Julian’s GoFundMe online.

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