A Day in the Life of Percy Julian: The Early Years
On summer Sunday afternoons, young Percy Julian and his father, James, would often hike in the woods near their house on South Oak Street in Montgomery, Alabama. As they walked, they would talk about literature or math or the importance of perseverance. Before reaching his teens, Percy was already reading the works of great writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, thanks to his mother who taught him at an early age to read and to do math. Percy’s mother, Elizabeth, was a teacher in nearby Verbena and often took Percy to school with her. She was also an accomplished gardener, and Percy admired the colorful flowers.
On their Sunday hikes, James Julian pointed out native plants to his son, who developed a life-long interest in plants and the chemicals in them. Later in his life, Julian said, “Every time I have tackled a new natural product and marveled at its biogenesis, the memory of the Sunday afternoon walks through the woods and field has remained with me.” Percy’s father also kept a meticulous notebook, a habit passed on to his oldest son. In addition to attending Sunday church services, Percy spent the day reading and studying from books that his parents supplied to their children.
Percy’s father was a mail clerk, which was a pretty good job for the times. So the Julians were well respected in their community. James had at one time been the principal of a small school for blacks in Ozark, Alabama, and education was important to him. He passed that love of learning on to Percy. As was often the case in the rural south, the center of life for African Americans was often the family. Cut off by segregation and the Jim Crow Laws from taking part in the broader community, black families built their lives around the extended family.
Percy Julian spent a great deal of time with his grandparents, Cabe and Livonia Julian, helping them plant and weed and harvest crops on the 500-acre farm. He sometimes accompanied his grandmother as she picked cotton. He also had a paper route from which he earned a little money.
There was not much formal schooling to take up Percy’s time. Most African American students attended classes fewer than 70 days each year (compared to the 120 day average for white students in the rural south). The state provided no funds for the school. Both of Percy’s parents had attended the Alabama State Normal School, and so did he.
Percy wished he could learn more at school. According to one story, he used to watch the white students at the nearby high school going to their science classes, and he dreamed of being able to learn chemistry like they did. But he was shooed away by a policeman who did not think it was right for a black boy to be interested in what white kids were learning.