Chemical Relations: William and Lawrence Knox, African American Chemists

After the war Larry found an industrial position with Nopco, a specialty chemical company in Harrison, New Jersey. In his three years there he was granted at least four patents. Like his brother William, Larry finally broke out of the black chemists’ “professional ghetto.”

For both brothers World War II created opportunities previously out of reach for black men. War also served as a catalyst for changing racial attitudes in the United States. The conspicuous bravery and commitment of many black servicemen, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, bolstered the claim of black Americans to full equality. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman integrated the armed forces; in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In this era African Americans faced both brutal challenges and increased possibilities. During the turbulent years of the civil-rights struggle William and Larry’s paths diverged.

William’s Postwar Career: Practicing Chemistry, Pursuing Civil Rights

Thanks to Libby’s personal recommendation, the Eastman Kodak Company offered William a position as a research associate in 1945. He was the second African American Ph.D. chemist hired by Kodak, which was headquartered in Rochester, New York. William worked on introducing surfactants into photographic emulsions to improve the manufacturing process and raise the quality of photographic film; during his 25 years at Kodak he coauthored 3 journal articles and was granted 21 patents.

Though William’s career took off, his family life still suffered from the effects of racism. His attempts to find a decent home near a good school for his daughter, Sandra Audrienne, proved fruitless: the house initially offered to him was an abandoned brothel. Finally, a sympathetic white coworker bought a house under his own name and sold it to William. The strain of living in a sometimes hostile community took its toll, but William’s wife, Edna, would simply say of those who shut the family out, “It is their loss.” At home William talked little about the slights, rebuffs, and obstacles they all encountered, but in public life he set out to make sure that others were spared.

William became a major figure in the Rochester civil-rights movement. Active in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he was also a founding member of the Rochester Urban League and sat on several civil-rights and antidiscrimination commissions. Convinced that education was indispensable in overcoming the effects of discrimination, William was instrumental in creating scholarships for minority students. His own painful experience trying to find decent housing propelled him into a leading role on the Housing Advisory Council and Urban League of Rochester.

Larry’s Postwar Career: Dedication to Chemistry

As with William, Larry found promotion via a prominent white scientist. In 1948 he received an invitation from Doering to become the resident director at the Hickrill Chemical Research Foundation in Katonah, New York. As a private venture created by philanthropists Sylvan and Ruth Alice Weil on their estate, the foundation specialized in long-term and speculative research where quick results were unlikely.