Growing Up in the Segregated South
Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on 11 April 1899. His grandparents had been slaves before the Civil War. Though they and all slaves were set free by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, life was still hard for southern African Americans in 1899.
Racial segregation was the law in Alabama and many other states, and many people still had deeply ingrained racist attitudes and treated African Americans as inferior.
Luckily, Julian had a strong and loving family . His father, James Julian, had a good job as a mail clerk for a railroad at a time when most people in Alabama, black or white, were poor farmers. Both James and Elizabeth Julian, Percy’s mother, wanted their children to be able to get the education they never had.
Julian went to a segregated elementary school that didn’t teach any science. He couldn’t go to high school because there was no high school for African Americans in Montgomery. Instead, he went to the Alabama State Normal School, a school for blacks that taught practical skills like blacksmithing and hat making, and trained teachers for black schools. It too offered little or no science. Julian had read about science in his father’s library at home, and chemistry fascinated him. He soon decided he wanted to be a chemist.
Julian’s father, however, wanted him to be a doctor. Back then, because of segregation, there was a need for black doctors who would treat black patients, but the only jobs in chemistry were in white-owned factories and laboratories. Julian’s father warned him about how hard it would be for him to find a job as a chemist, but young Percy was highly motivated. He became even more determined when he heard about an African American named St. Elmo Brady who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Julian convinced his father that he could achieve his goal, and in 1916, with the help of a teacher named Joan Stuart at the Normal School, he entered DePauw University in Indiana to study chemistry.