Chemical Relations: William and Lawrence Knox, African American Chemists

Elijah’s son, William Jacob, established the family tradition of upward mobility through education. After receiving the highest grade on the New Bedford civil-service exam in 1903, he obtained a post-office position in 1905. William Jacob and his wife, Estella, had five children. The two girls were steered toward vocational training while the three sons (William, born 1904; Lawrence, born 1906; and Clinton Everett, born 1908) were sent to college. (The youngest son received his Ph.D. from Harvard in the same year as Lawrence and eventually served as U.S. ambassador to Dahomey and Haiti.)

When William entered Harvard in September 1921, the university excluded students of color from the freshman dormitories. Many years later William lamented this denial of intellectual give-and-take with his classmates and, often, academic help from his professors. He felt robbed of a large part of his undergraduate experience. The bitterness over his exclusion never completely abated, lingering long after his 1925 graduation.

Further north Lawrence enjoyed a rich life as an undergraduate at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Like many other predominantly white American colleges that admitted students of color, Bates had a maximum quota of 3% for minorities, which included African Americans and Jews. Once admitted, Larry (as he was called), experienced little if any discrimination; he played football, joined the Jordan Scientific and Outing Clubs, and majored in chemistry. The 1928 Bates yearbook described Larry in doggerel: it begins, “The ‘Lord,’ a mighty man is he, and full well versed in chemistry,” and concludes, “At words and mischief he is best—both in the night and in the day!” Larry wrote a senior honors thesis investigating the Friedel-Crafts reaction between acid chlorides and aromatics, and graduated cum laude in 1928.

Despite their degrees in science, the brothers faced limited employment prospects. Civil-service regulations shielded African American federal government workers from overt discrimination; segregated hospitals meant black doctors could find positions at black hospitals, while black colleges and universities offered teaching positions. Lawrence and William headed to the South to teach in historically black colleges. Their first encounters with legalized segregation left William, in particular, deeply disturbed. Fifty years after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Harvard, he wrote in his class report of his “unwillingness to continue to subject [himself] and [his] family to the indignities associated with living in the South.” The solution for both brothers was more education.

In 1928, after three years of teaching at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina (among whose alumni was Henry A. Hill, until this year the only African American president of the American Chemical Society), William went back to Cambridge, this time to attend MIT. In 1929 he earned an M.S. degree in chemical engineering, working on vapor-phase esterification of acids, and then returned to teaching, this time at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. After two years he returned to MIT for his Ph.D., working on the spectroscopy of the NO2/N2O4 system. Even with a doctorate, in the 1930s William’s career options were still limited to teaching at historically black colleges or universities. He returned to the South in 1935, this time to the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, and after a year moved to Talladega College in Alabama, where he was head of the chemistry department.