The Life and Times of Percy Julian
Breaking Racial Barriers: 1946-1956

“The Man Who Wouldn’t Give Up”

While Julian was making a name for himself as an industrial chemist at the Glidden Company, a lot of social changes were taking place in the world.

By the late 1940s, Julian was still living in a segregated society, but things were slowly starting to happen. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1948 President Harry Truman ordered the U.S. armed forces to integrate. Public school segregation was ruled unconstitutional in 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the following year African Americans in Montgomery launched a protest against segregated public transit by staging a boycott—after a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Click to go to Activity. (By the way, Rosa Parks attended the same school as Percy Julian—the Alabama State Normal School—about 15 years after Julian did.)

As racial barriers were breaking down, many people started to pay attention to Julian’s life and work. In 1946 Reader’s Digest ran his life story under the title “The Man Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” In 1947 he won the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). DePauw University gave him an honorary doctorate the same year. In 1950 the Chicago Chamber of Commerce named him “Chicagoan of the Year.” That same year he and his family moved to Oak Park, an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago.

But despite his successes, Julian still had to face bitter racism. The Julians were the first African American family to live in Oak Park. Not long after they arrived their house was fire-bombed. A second attack occurred the following year. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either incident, and many of Julian’s white neighbors stood by him and his family.

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