MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE – College Founder, Activist, Humanitarian

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (born Mary Jane McLeod; July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist best known for starting a private school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida. She attracted donations of time and money, and developed the academic school as a college. It later continued to develop as Bethune-Cookman University. She also was appointed as a national adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of what was known as his Black Cabinet. She was known as "The First Lady of The Struggle" because of her commitment to gain better lives for African Americans.

Born in Mayesville, South Carolina, to parents who had been slaves, she started working in fields with her family at age five. She took an early interest in becoming educated; with the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. She started a school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. It later merged with a private institute for African-American boys, and was known as the Bethune-Cookman School. Bethune maintained high standards and promoted the school with tourists and donors, to demonstrate what educated African Americans could do. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942, and 1946 to 1947. She was one of the few women in the world to serve as a college president at that time.

Bethune was also active in women's clubs, which were strong civic organizations supporting welfare and other needs, and became a national leader. After working on the presidential campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, she was invited as a member of his Black Cabinet. She advised him on concerns of black people and helped share Roosevelt's message and achievements with blacks, who had historically been Republican voters since the Civil War. At the time, blacks had been largely disenfranchised in the South since the turn of the century, so she was speaking to black voters across the North. Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor."

Honors include designation of her home in Daytona Beach as a National Historic Landmark, her house in Washington, D.C. as a National Historic Site, and the installation of a memorial sculpture of her in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.

The historic Daytona Beach home of Mary McLeod Bethune was built around 1904-05 and was purchased for Mrs. Bethune in 1913. She lived in the home until her passing in 1955.  Mrs. Bethune's home received the designation of National Historic Landmark by the United States Secretary of Interior on December 2, 1974.

The Daytona Beach,Fl home of Mary McLeod Bethune on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site preserves the house of Mary McLeod Bethune, located in Northwest Washington, D.C., at 1318 Vermont Avenue NW. National Park Service rangers offer tours of the home, and a video about Bethune's life is shown.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House

Bethune made her home in the townhouse from 1943 to 1955. She purchased it for $15,500. Bethune lived on the third floor, while the National Council of Negro Women occupied the first and second floors.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial is a bronze statue honoring Mary McLeod Bethune, by Robert Berks. The monument is the first statue erected on public land in Washington, D.C. to honor an African American and a woman. The statue features an elderly Mrs. Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young black children. Mrs. Bethune is supporting herself by a cane given to her by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The statue was unveiled on the anniversary of her 99th birthday, July 10, 1974, before a crowd of over 18,000 people. The funds for the monument were raised by the National Council of Negro Women, the organization Mrs. Bethune founded in 1935. It is located in Lincoln Park, at East Capitol Street and 12th Street N.E. Washington, D.C.

Historical Educator, Madelyn M. Sanders, is a member of Women In History; a group that educates through the dramatic representation of notable women in U.S. history. Her characterization of Mary McLeod Bethune is her favorite. Ms. Sanders notes, “What better way to educate children and adults on the accomplishments of our female ancestors, than through first person characterizations?  There is a special pride I feel each time I portray one of these outstanding historical figures.”

Mary McLeod Bethune as Portrayed by Madelyn Sanders

Mary McLeod Bethune Song

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable – Founder of Chicago

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (unknown date in 1745 – August 28, 1818) known as the "Founder of Chicago". In Chicago, a school, museum, harbor, park and bridge have been named, or renamed, in his honor; and the place where he settled at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s is recognized as a National Historic Landmark, now located in Pioneer Court.

Du Sable's Native American Connection

Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti. Not very much is known about Du Sable's early life. It is known, however, that Du Sable's mother was probably killed by the Spanish when he was ten. In 1764 Du Sable and his friend Jacques Clemorgan moved from Haiti to New Orleans. Du Sable was eventually thankful for moving to New Orleans because it was here that he and his friend Clemorgan met their future partner of a trading post in New Orleans, and later in what would become Peoria, Illinois. The young man Du Sable and Clemorgan met was Choctaw, a Native American from the Great Lakes. At the time, Choctaw was working at a Catholic mission.

Du Sable, Clemorgan, and Choctaw later moved to Illinois. It was here that Du Sable and Clemorgan learned the skills they would use later at their trading post. Choctaw taught Du Sable and Clemorgan valuable skills. They learned how to set traps and where to find martens, small animals trapped for their fur. The three men started a trading post. Du Sable and Choctaw spent their time trapping in the woods, while Clemorgan devoted his time to hauling pelts downstream to New Orleans.

While trapping one spring day with Choctaw, Du Sable met Chief Pontiac, an important Native American leader. Little did they know that they would gain the respect of all the Indians of the Midwest in the weeks to come. Pontiac asked Du Sable and Clemorgan to arrange a peace treaty between the Ottawa, Miami, and Illinois tribes. Du Sable eagerly arranged the meeting in order to restore peace between the tribes.

Du Sable and Choctaw stayed a little longer than expected, but Du Sable was thankful, for it was during the stay that he met Catherine, a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa (Christianized to Catherine) on October 27, 1788 in a Catholic ceremony in Cahokia, an old French missionary town on the Mississippi River. Du Sable and Catherine were married most likely in the 1770s in the Native American tradition. They had two children, a son named Jean and a daughter named Susanne and lived in a cabin built by Du Sable and Choctaw. This cabin was built on the north bank a waterway that is now called the Chicago River close to its mouth. But Du Sable called it Checagou, the name given it by the Indians.

Du Sable became well known for trading goods throughout the Midwest. He expanded his cabin to a trading post, which later became a small community with a church, school, and store. By 1776 Du Sable had commercial buildings, docks, a mansion house with fruit orchards, and livestock. Pleased with his partner's accomplishments, Clemorgan went to St. Louis, Missouri, to close his own trading post for fear of damage during the war between Spain and Britain.

Du Sable's trading post was very prosperous. Settlers came to Du Sable's post from Quebec because of difficulties with the English who enforced strict rules regarding travel and free trade and heavily taxed them. Many wanted to buy land from Du Sable, but he refused to sell the land. Instead, he gave them some land.

In 1779 war was declared on the British because they would not give up the fort, nor would they leave the Great Lakes. It was then that Du Sable understood that he and his friends could not keep the red coats away from the Great Lakes, and that they would be there for years to come.

Conditions, however, deteriorated in Du Sable's remote outpost. In 1778 British soldiers began to build a fort on Du Sable's land. They arrested Du Sable and about a week afterward the Indians ambushed more than half the troops at the fort and wounded many others. Thus, Indians became a colonial ally in the American Revolution.

In 1779, he was living on the site of present-day Michigan City, Indiana, when he was arrested in August  by the British military on suspicion of being an American sympathizer in the American Revolutionary War. In the early 1780s he worked for the British lieutenant-governor of Michilimackinac on an estate at what is now the city of St. Clair, Michigan, before moving to settle at the mouth of the Chicago River. 

Commemorative bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe Du Sable along Chicago River

In 1779, Point du Sable was arrested at Trail Creek by British troops and imprisoned briefly at Fort Michilimackinac. 

From the summer of 1780 until May 1784, Point du Sable managed the Pinery, a tract of woodlands claimed by British Lt. Patrick Sinclair on the St. Clair River in eastern Michigan. Point du Sable and his family lived at a cabin at the mouth of the Pine River in what is now the city of St. Clair.

Drawing of the home of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in Chicago as it appeared in the early 1800s

In 1800 after Du Sable's son and wife died, Jean sold his land to Jean Le Lime, an employee of his: Le Lime later sold the land to John Kinzie. Meanwhile, Du Sable moved with his daughter, Suzanne, to St. Louis. Later, Suzanne and her husband moved to Canada and Du Sable lived with his granddaughter.

Du Sable bought a house on a farm in St. Charles, Missouri that he deeded to his grandchildren, Eulalie and Michael. This was on condition that Eulalie care for him and promise to bury him with Catholic rites in a Catholic cemetery. For the next few years Du Sable lived quietly on his St. Charles farm in Missouri. On August 29, 1818, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable at age seventy-three died quietly in his sleep. True to her word, Eulalie had a funeral mass held for her grandfather and buried him at the Catholic cemetery in St. Charles, Missouri.

The DuSable Museum of African American History located in the historic Hyde Park area of Chicago is named in honor of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.

Although Chicago was not chartered as a city until 1837, its founding took place many years before when Du Sable opened his trading post beside the Chicago River. From this humble start came an important city, and Du Sable's life there in its early days is an important part of that heritage.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Article includes information republished under license from Wikipedia and educational fair use of Northern Illinois University material.

George Edwin Taylor – The Son of a Slave Who Ran for President

George Edwin Taylor (August 4, 1857 – December 23, 1925) was the first  nominated African-American U.S. Presidential candidate, he was nominated by the National Negro Liberty Party in 1904. Taylor was not, however, the first Black person to run for president, that distinction belongs to Fredrick Douglass who first ran in 1848, seeking the Liberty Party nomination, but was beat out by Gerrit Smith.

1904 election

Between 1900 and 1904, Taylor was president of the National Negro Democratic League. Southern Democrats were enacting laws that disfranchised most Black voters and were imposing segregation through “Jim Crow” laws. Northern Democrats seemed unwilling and/or unable to control the excesses of their Southern parties. The National Negro Democratic League was fractured by the debate over the issue of linking the nation’s currency to silver as well as to gold. By 1904, Taylor was positioned to abandon the party and bureau that he had led as president for two terms. It was not a good time to be a Black democrat. It also was a time when lynching was creeping northward and when scientific racism was gaining acceptance within the nation’s intellectual and scientific community. It was not a good time to be a Black American.

Judge” Taylor made that change in 1904 when the executive committee of the newly formed National Negro Liberty Party asked him to become their candidate for the office of president of the United States. That party had its origin in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1897 when it was known as the Ex-Slave Petitioners’ Assembly. It was one of several leagues or assemblies that had formed at the end of the century to support bills then working their way through the United States Congress to grant pensions to former slaves. These leagues claimed that membership in a league was required to qualify for a pension, if and when Congress passed such a bill. In 1900, that Assembly reorganized as the National Industrial Council and in 1903 added issues of lynching, Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement, anti-imperialism and scientific racism to its agenda, broadening its appeal to Black voters in Northern and Midwestern states. In 1904 the Council moved its headquarters to Chicago, Illinois and reorganized as the National Negro Civil Liberty Party.

The first national convention of that new party convened in St. Louis, Missouri in July 1904, with plans to field candidates in states that had sizeable Black populations. Its platform included planks that dealt with disfranchisement, insufficient career opportunities for Blacks in the United States military, imperialism, public ownership of railroads, “self-government” for the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), lynching, and pensions for ex-slaves.

The convention also selected “Col.” William Thomas Scott of East St. Louis, Illinois as its candidate for the office of president of the United States for the 1904 election. When convention delegates had left St. Louis and when Scott was arrested and jailed for having failed to pay a fine imposed in 1901, the party’s executive committee turned to Taylor who had just stepped down as president of the National Negro Democratic League to lead the party’s ticket.

George_Edwin_TaylorTaylor’s campaign in 1904 was unsuccessful. The party’s promise to put 300 speakers on the stump to support his candidacy and its plan to field 6,000 candidates for local offices failed to materialize. No newspaper supported the party. State laws kept the party from listing candidates officially on election ballots. Taylor’s name failed to be added to any state ballot. The votes he received were not recorded in state records. William Scott, who had been the party convention’s first choice as candidate, later estimated that the party had received 65,000 votes nationwide, a number that could not be verified.

After the 1904 election, Taylor briefly retreated to his farm near Hilton and Albia, Iowa and then moved to Ottumwa, Iowa for health reasons. At that time Ottumwa was known for its hot springs. He remained active within the dysfunctional National Negro Liberty Party and reconnected to the Democratic Party, supporting that party’s candidates for local offices. As a reward for that support, he was appointed to a patronage position as a policeman attached to Ottumwa’s district designated for Black residences and businesses, known regionally as the “Black belt,” “Badlands,” or “tenderloin.”

In 1908, he gave a keynote address to a “Union Convention” of Black political leagues that was held in Denver, Colorado at the same time that the National Democratic Party was meeting in that city. That “Union Convention” organized a National Negro Anti-Taft League that supported the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, Democrat from Nebraska, for the office of president of the United States. Taylor was a member of that league’s committee on resolutions.

Son of a Slave

Taylor was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the free Black son of Amanda Hines, a free Black woman and Nathan Taylor (a slave). When the State of Arkansas passed the Free Negro Expulsion Act in 1859, which required all free Blacks to leave the state or be seized, and, if they refused to leave after one year, be sold as slaves. Hines took infant George to Alton, Illinois, which was an antebellum center of the Underground Railroad on the Mississippi River and a major river port for the Union military once the Civil War began in 1861.  Hines died of Tuberculosis in 1861 or 1862. George later claimed that he, an orphan, lived in storehouse boxes in Alton during the war years. 

La Crosse period

A month after the war ended in 1865, at age 8, George landed at the docks of La Crosse, Wisconsin on board the Hawkeye State, a steam side-paddle wheeler that operated between St. Paul, Minnesota and St. Louis, Missouri. He attended school and obtained early experiences as a journalist and labor/political activist.

Taylor remained in La Crosse for two or three years. During those years he was known as George Southall and likely lived with the family of Henry Southall, a Black cook who worked on paddle wheelers. In 1867 or 1868, the Southalls moved from La Crosse, and George, at age 10 or 11, remained in La Crosse. A La Crosse County court judge intervened and fostered him to a Black family, Nathan Smith and his wife Sarah, who provided care for some of the county’s orphaned or abandoned children and who lived near West Salem, Wisconsin, twelve kilometers east of La Crosse. Taylor remained fostered to Smith until he reached the age of 20. During this period, George took the name of George Edward Taylor. He attended a country school near his home.

At age 20, Taylor enrolled at Wayland University in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, where he remained for two years (1877–1879). He studied a classical curriculum that emphasized grammar, language, and rhetoric. Taylor left Wayland before completing his three-year curriculum for health and financial reasons.

Iowa Period

In 1891 Taylor left Wisconsin for Oskaloosa, Iowa where he published a weekly newspaper, the Negro Solicitor. In the 1890s, Taylor transitioned from Independent Republican to Democrat.

Taylor had affiliated with the Republican Party. He arrived in Iowa as a community organizer and a Republican Party promoter. His focus changed from “labor” to “race” in a time when the nation was increasing focusing on the issues of race and the “Negro Problem.” In this two-decade period, Taylor owned and operated a newspaper (the Negro Solicitor) and a farm, served two terms as a local Justice of the Peace (judge), transitioned from Republican to Democrat to Independent and back to Democrat, and was a policeman. He also was the head of the Negro Bureau in the National Democratic Party (1900–1904).

Taylor married Cora (née Cooper) Buckner on August 25, 1894. Cora was sixteen years younger than Taylor and brought a child to the marriage. That child was mentioned only once in the record. Cora was a typist and essayist who edited the Negro Solicitor (1893–1898) when Taylor was most active at the state and national levels. There were no known children to this marriage. When Taylor moved from Oskaloosa to manage a lead mine at Coalfield, Iowa in 1900 and then to operate a farm near Hilton and Albia, Iowa after 1900, Cora refused to leave Oskaloosa and the marriage ended in divorce. During this phase as a farmer, Taylor also studied law and served two terms as a “justice of the peace.”

No known copies of Taylor’s Negro Solicitor survived, except for scattered articles reprinted in other newspapers or found in scrapbooks. Taylor published the Negro Solicitor as an Independent Republican paper in 1892–1893 and then as a Democrat paper in 1893–1898. Taylor revived the Negro Solicitor for four to six months when he moved to Ottumwa, Iowa in 1904. Taylor also wrote articles for the Sunday Des Moines Leader in 1898.

Taylor’s period as an Independent Republican (a Negrowump) was short-lived. Iowa’s Republican leadership envisioned Taylor as someone who could speak the language of labor and who could keep Iowa’s Black coal and lead miners loyal to the party that had liberated them from slavery. Within sixteen months of his arrival in Iowa, however, Taylor abandoned the Iowa Republican Party for an independent course that emphasized racial solidarity rather than party membership.

In 1892, Taylor was founder and president of the National Colored Men’s Protection League and was positioned to play a major role as an Independent Republican. He, along with Frederick Douglass and Charles Ferguson, carried recommendations from Black Independent Republicans to the Platform Committee of the National Republican Party. That committee rejected all of their recommendations, and Taylor, in response, published a scathing “National Appeal, addressed to the American Negro and the Friends of Human Liberty.” That “Appeal” effectively ended any role that he might have hoped to play within the state or national party.

In 1900 Taylor was president of the National Negro Democratic League, the Negro Bureau within the National Democratic Party. In 1904, Taylor joined the National Negro Liberty Party as its candidate for the office of president of the United States. He reconnected with the Democratic Party after the failure of his 1904 election campaign. Taylor’s activities at the state level primarily focused within leagues and associations that claimed to be non-partisan. These included state leagues that affiliated with the National Afro-American League (NAAL), the National Afro-American Council (NAAC), and the National Colored Men’s Protective League (NCMPL). These leagues served as black-only forums for discussing problems peculiar to the race – ideally in a non-partisan and non-confrontational setting. They also included the Iowa Colored Congress, the Iowa Knights of Pythias, and Prince Hall Masons.

Taylor’s activities at the regional and national levels, however, tended to be intensely partisan, except for his leadership role in a dysfunctional non-partisan National Colored Men’s Protective League that he led as president from 1892 until the end of the century. That league expected to compete with or complement the National Afro-American League, but it accomplished little more than meet infrequently and discuss issues of importance to the race. During this period Taylor was founder and president of the Negro Inter-State Free Silver League (1897), president of the National Knights of Pythias (1899), and secretary (1898–1900) and then president (1900–1904) of the National Negro Democratic League which became the officially supported Negro Bureau within the National Democratic Party. He also was vice-president and then president of the Negro National Free Silver League (1896–?1898), vice-president of the National Negro Anti-Expansion, Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Trust and Anti-Lynching League (1899), candidate of the National Negro Liberty Party for the office of president of the United States in 1904, and vice-president of the National Negro Anti-Taft League in 1908.

Florida Phase

Taylor’s reasons for moving from Iowa and to Florida in 1910 are not clearly defined. Scattered reference to health problems throughout his life in the Midwest and his move to Ottumwa for health reasons suggest that Taylor suffered from pulmonary difficulties and that he sought out those places believed to be curative for pulmonary problems. Taylor also was a Mason and had attended a national meeting of Masons in Jacksonville, Florida in 1900 as the president of Iowa’s Prince Hall Masons. His Negro Solicitor had a southern readership, and he was known among the nation’s Black journalists. Jacksonville’s Black population was large, employment opportunities were much better than in Ottumwa, and hot springs on Florida’s eastern coast were believed to be particularly helpful for persons with pulmonary problems.

Taylor married Marion Tillinghast of Green Cove Spring, Florida, date unknown. Tillinghast was a school teacher.

Taylor appeared first in Tampa, Florida where he became a reporter, likely for the Florida Reporter. In 1911 he moved to St. Augustine, Florida where he was manager of the Magnolia Remedy Company which distributed curative salves and potions to tourists and others from the North who migrated to Florida during the winter months for health reasons. While in St. Augustine, he wrote two political tracts, “Removing the Mask” and “Backward Steps” which were popular themes from his earlier writing when he was claiming that the Republican Party was hypocritical and was retreating from its promises. In 1912, Taylor was the editor of the Daily Promoter of Jacksonville and in 1917 became the editor of the “Black Star” edition of the Florida Times-Union, the state’s largest newspaper. He also was active in Jacksonville’s Young Men’s Christian Association, was a member of the Board of Commissioners for Jacksonville’s Masonic lodges, and maintained an office in Walker National Business College, one of the nation’s largest Black technical colleges.

By 1912, Taylor was well connected politically within Florida and had reconnected at the national level. Taylor was an Independent first, Democrat second, and always Black. In May 1912 he attended a state convention of progressive Republicans in Jacksonville that championed the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt against a second term bid by William Howard Taft of Ohio. Taylor, billed as “Major George Taylor of Iowa,” supported Roosevelt. When Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey won that election, however, Taylor joined a group of past-presidents of the National Negro Democrat League to march past President Wilson in his 1913 Inaugural Parade.

During the war years when Jacksonville became the center of repeated outbreaks of Spanish Influenza, Taylor retreated to a farm where he raised “poultry.” When the war ended, Taylor returned to Jacksonville and became the organizer/director of an exclusive “Progressive Order of Men and Women” that was essentially an investment club and mutual insurance company. He also became the editor of the Florida Sentinel. He remained connected to Walker National Business College. He died in Jacksonville on December 23, 1925.

The only known biography of Taylor is For Labor, Race, and Liberty: George Edwin Taylor, his historic run for the White House, and the making of Independent Black Politics, by Bruce L. Mouser (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Text above republished under license from Wikipedia.

Derrick Albert Bell Jr. – First Black Harvard Law Professor

Derrick Albert Bell Jr. (November 6, 1930 – October 5, 2011) was the first tenured African-American professor of law at Harvard Law School and is largely credited as one of the originators of critical race theory. He was a visiting professor at New York University School of Law from 1991 until his death. He was also a dean of the University of Oregon School of Law.

Education and early career

Born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Bell received an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952. He was a member of the Duquesne Reserve Officers' Training Corps and later served as an Air Force officer for two years (stationed in Korea for one of those years). In 1957 he received an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. After graduation, and after a recommendation from then United States associate attorney general William P. Rogers, Bell took a position with the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department.

Bell was one of the few black lawyers working for the Justice Department at the time. In 1959, the government asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. Bell left the Justice Department rather than giving up his NAACP membership.

Soon afterwards, Bell took a position as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), crafting legal strategies at the forefront of the battle to undo racist laws and segregation in schools. At the LDF, he worked alongside other prominent civil-rights attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter and Constance Baker Motley. Bell was assigned to Mississippi. While working at the LDF, Bell supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases and spearheaded the fight of James Meredith to secure admission to the University of Mississippi, over the protests of governor Ross Barnett.

Bell was quoted as saying in The Boston Globe

"I learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality,"  … "I also learned a lot riding those dusty roads and walking into those sullen hostile courts in Jackson, Mississippi. It just seems that unless something's pushed, unless you litigate, nothing happens."

In the mid-1960s Bell was appointed to the law faculty of the University of Southern California as executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Harvard Law School

In 1969, with the help of protests from black Harvard Law School students for a minority faculty member, Bell was hired to teach there. At Harvard, Bell established a new course in civil rights law, published a celebrated case book, Race, Racism and American Law, and produced a steady stream of law review articles.

Protests over faculty diversity

In 1980, he started a five-year tenure as dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, interrupted by his resignation after an Asian-American woman he had chosen to join the faculty was refused by the university.

Returning to Harvard in 1986, after a year-long stint at Stanford University, Bell staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school's failure to grant tenure to two professors on staff, both of whose work promoted critical race theory. The sit-in was widely supported by students, but divided the faculty, as Harvard administrators claimed the professors were denied tenure for substandard scholarship and teaching.

In 1990, Harvard Law School had 60 tenured professors. Three of these were black men, and five of them were women, but there were no African-American women among them, a dearth Bell decided to protest with an unpaid leave of absence. Students supported the move which critics found "counterproductive", while Harvard administrators cited a lack of qualified candidates, defending that they had taken great strides in the previous decade to bring women and black people onto the faculty. The story of his protest is detailed in his book Confronting Authority.

Bell's protest at Harvard stirred angry criticism by opposing Harvard Law faculty who called him "a media manipulator who unfairly attacked the school", noting that other people had accused him of "depriv[ing] students of an education while he makes money on the lecture circuit".

Bell took his leave of absence and accepted a visiting professorship at NYU Law, starting in 1991. After two years, Harvard had still not hired any minority women, and Bell requested an extension of his leave, which the school refused, thereby ending his tenure. Later in 1998, Harvard Law hired civil rights attorney and U.S. assistant attorney general nominee Lani Guinier, who became the law school's first black female tenured professor.

In March 2012, five months after his death, Bell became the target of conservative media, including and Sean Hannity, in an exposé of President Barack Obama.

The controversy focused on a 1990 video of Obama praising Bell at a protest by Harvard Law School students over the perceived lack of diversity in the school's faculty. Bell's widow stated that Bell and Obama had "very little contact" after Obama's law school graduation. She said that as far as she remembers, "He never had contact with the president as president". An examination of Senior Lecturer Obama's syllabus for his course on race and law at the University of Chicago revealed significant differences between Obama's perspective and that of Derrick Bell, even as Obama drew on major writings of critical race theory.

NYU School of Law

Bell's visiting professorship at New York University began in 1991. After his two-year leave of absence, his position at Harvard ended and he remained at NYU where he continued to write and lecture on issues of race and civil rights.


Bell is arguably the most influential source of thought critical of traditional civil rights discourse. Bell’s critique represented a challenge to the dominant liberal and conservative position on civil rights, race and the law. He employed three major arguments in his analyses of racial patterns in American law: constitutional contradiction, the interest convergence principle, and the price of racial remedies. His book Race, Racism and American Law, now in its sixth edition, has been continually in print since 1973 and is considered a classic in the field.

Bell and other legal scholars began using the phrase "critical race theory" (CRT) in the 1970s as a takeoff on "critical legal theory", a branch of legal scholarship that challenges the validity of concepts such as rationality, objective truth, and judicial neutrality. Critical legal theory was itself a takeoff on critical theory, a philosophical framework with roots in Marxist thought.

Bell continued writing about critical race theory after accepting a teaching position at Harvard University. He worked alongside lawyers, activists, and legal scholars across the country. Much of his legal scholarship was influenced by his experience both as a black man and as a civil rights attorney. Writing in a narrative style, Bell contributed to the intellectual discussions on race. According to Bell, his purpose in writing was to examine the racial issues within the context of their economic and social and political dimensions from a legal standpoint. Bell’s critical race theory was eventually branched into more theories describing the hardships of other races as well, such as AsianCrit (Asian), FemCrit (Women), LatCrit (Latino), TribalCrit (American Indian), and WhiteCrit (White). These theories weren’t developed in contention with another; they were developed to study each prudently, separately and analytically. These were developed based off the 6 propositions many race theorists can agree on. The propositions are as follows:

  • First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational.
  • Second, white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.
  • Third, “social construction” thesis holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations.
  • Fourth, how a dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market.
  • Fifth, intersectionality and anti-essentialism is the idea that each race has its own origins and ever-evolving history.
  • Sixth, voice-of-color thesis holds that because of different histories and experiences to white counterparts', matters that the whites are unlikely to know can be conveyed.

CRT has also led to the study of microaggressions, Paradigmatic kinship, the historical origins and shifting paradigmatic vision of CRT, and how in depth legal studies show law serves the interests of the powerful groups in society. Microaggressions are subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.

For instance, in The Constitutional Contradiction, Bell argued that the framers of the Constitution chose the rewards of property over justice. With regard to the interest convergence, he maintains that "whites will promote racial advances for blacks only when they also promote white self-interest." Finally, in The Price of Racial Remedies, Bell argues that whites will not support civil rights policies that may threaten white social status. Similar themes can be found in another well-known piece entitled, "Who's Afraid of Critical Race Theory?" from 1995.

His 2002 book, Ethical Ambition, encourages a life of ethical behavior, including "a good job well done, giving credit to others, standing up for what you believe in, voluntarily returning lost valuables, choosing what feels right over what might feel good right now".

In addition to his writings, Bell was also a revered and accomplished teacher. His constitutional law courses took a critical but comprehensive student-centered approach, and he was well known for his kindness towards students.


Less is written about Bell's teaching than his scholarship, but he was also a passionate and creative law teacher. He taught primarily classes in constitutional law at NYU Law. Bell rejected the conventional law school pedagogy of the Socratic method, preferring a more student-centered approach. Student argued hypothetical and real pending cases in his classes in mock appellate argument format, and they also wrote appellate briefs and wrote and discussed short op-ed papers on the cases. They were evaluated based on these writings, rather than on a final exam. Bell implemented this seminar-style format even in a large constitutional law class of 75 or more students. To do so, he hired one recent graduate to serve as the Derrick Bell Fellow and assist him. His courses also employed a number of student TAs who had taken his course previously, to assist current students in preparing for their oral arguments. Additionally, Professor Bell took many other measures to "humanize the law school experience." He would have food and drink for the students during the break in the middle of every class, and he would occasionally have students sing a class song, or have them sing "Happy Birthday" to a fellow student or TA. The final class in constitutional law would be a talent show where students would perform skits, songs, and poetry about various constitutional law topics.

Professor Bell was well known for his kindness to students. One fact often missed by the media is that even conservative White male student liked him personally, because he encouraged and invited him to challenge his views and gave them space to do so in his classes. Some even became his Teaching Assistants. Professor Bell gave his pointed opinions on many issues in class, but he did not expect anyone to accept those views uncritically. This critical engagement, combined with his goal of "humanizing the law school experience" is best characterized as Professor Bell's "radical humanism." 

Science fiction

Bell also wrote science fiction short stories, including "The Space Traders", a story in which white Americans trade black Americans to space aliens in order to pay off the national debt and receive advanced technology. The story was adapted for television in 1994 by director Reginald Hudlin and writer Trey Ellis. It aired on HBO as the leading segment of a three-part anthology entitled Cosmic Slop, which focused on minority-centric science fiction.


On October 5, 2011, Derrick Bell died from carcinoid cancer at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, at the age of 80.  "At the time, the Associated Press reported: "The dean at NYU, Richard Revesz, said, 'For more than 20 years, the law school community has been profoundly shaped by Derrick's unwavering passion for civil rights and community justice, and his leadership as a scholar, teacher, and activist.'"

Bell has been memorialized at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law with the Derrick A. Bell Constitutional Law Commons which was opened on March 20, 2013 in the school's Barco Law Library. Bell was also honored with the renaming of the school's community law clinic that provides legal assistance to local low-income residents to the Derrick Bell Community Legal Clinic. Two fellowship positions within the school are also named for Bell.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Article text republished under license from Wikipedia.

John Morton-Finney: Renaissance man

John Morton-Finney, (June 25, 1889 – January 28, 1998) was born in Uniontown, KY, the son of a former slave father and a free mother and was one of seven children. He became a soldier, educator, lawyer, and civil rights activist.

When Morton-Finney's mother died, his father was unable to care for the large family and sent John to live with his grandfather in Missouri.

In 1911, Morton-Finney joined the U.S. Army and became part of the Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to an all-black cavalry regiment in pre-World War I days.

Painting of Buffalo Soldiers

Cheyenne warriors gave the regiment its name in 1867 because the Native Americans likened their hair quality to the hair of a buffalo and as a testament to the soldiers' fierce fighting abilities.

Morton-Finney served in the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment from 1911-1914 and went to the Philippines. He rose to the rank of sergeant and applied for an officer’s commission. In 1913, his commander told him that, although he had the intelligence and the education to be an officer, he was disqualified due to his race. When the commander said that he wouldn’t be able to go to the officer’s club, Morton-Finney responded that he didn’t want to go to the officer’s club; he wanted to be an officer. He earned a citation from General John J. Pershing for his service in the Philippines.

After serving in the Philippines, he returned to the states in 1914 and, two years later, completed a degree at Lincoln College in Missouri. He took a teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri. But when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917,  he rejoined the military and served honorably in France with the American Expeditionary Force. 

After the war, he earned degrees in math, French, and history. At Lincoln College, he heard about a new French teacher, Pauline Ray, with a degree from Cornell University. Morton-Finney signed into her class and won her heart. They were married and moved to Indianapolis in 1922 and John went back to teaching. He taught junior high math and social studies at Indianapolis Public Schools #27 and #17 where he also served as principal.

In 1925, Morton-Finney completed an IU master's degree in education and French. He taught languages in segregated schools for African-American students, ending up at the newly opened Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis.

Crispus Attucks High School

Finney was the first teacher hired when Crispus Attucks High School opened in 1927 and taught in several Indianapolis Public Schools. 

The school was intended to provide a model for the education of African American students. Fluent in six languages, Morton-Finney became the head of the foreign language department at Attucks, the largest foreign languages department at any Indiana high school at the time. Morton-Finney taught Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, and French. According to his daughter, Gloria, John Morton-Finney invited presidents from black colleges to speak to the students. He made it possible for Crispus Attucks students to obtain scholarships to attend college.

An ordinary person might have been satisfied to stop there, but Morton-Finney was far from ordinary — or satisfied. In 1935, he earned his first law degree, the first of five. Morton-Finney was admitted to practice law in the state of Indiana in 1935.  In 1944, Morton-Finney earned an L.L.B., and then in 1946, a J.D., both from IU. 

In 1971, at the age of 82, he brought suit to challenge Indiana school boards to cease setting the mandatory retirement age at 66.  He lost and was forced to retire from his teaching position after 47 years. 

johnmortonfinneyIn 1991, Morton-Finney was inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame in Washington, and in the same year, he visited with President George Bush in the Rose Garden of the White House. Morton-Finney reported that President Bush was the second U.S. president he had met — the first was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

President Bush cited Morton-Finney as a model for educating ourselves and others. "If he's still ready and willing to learn, so can we all be," the president said. "And if he's always looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking, so must the entire system of American education."

In his long and remarkable life, John Morton-Finney earned 12 degrees, his last at 75 from Butler University. At the age of 100, colleagues report that he still attended law school seminars "with the eagerness of a first-year student." He practiced law until he was 107 and died on January 28, 1998, at the age of 108.

He was the last surviving member of the Buffalo Soldiers and received a full honor military memorial service and was laid to rest at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, IN.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Were 1200 black soldiers massacred by white soldiers in Mississippi?

Camp Van Dorn was a U.S. Army Post located in Centreville, Mississippi and served as a training camp from 1942-1945. The 364th was an all-Black regiment of soldiers that had been stationed at Camp Van Dorn in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. According to the book, "The Slaughter: An American Atrocity," black soldiers were massacred in fall of 1943.

At that time, the Army had begun intensifying its efforts to recruit Blacks, as evidenced by the WWII propaganda film "The Negro Soldier" created in 1943 by the United States Army and released in 1944, but the Army was still racially segregated.  

The 364th arrived at Camp Van Dorn in two groups on May 26, and May 28, 1943, some of whom had already survived three previous race riots, came to Centreville announcing they were going to "clean up" the base and surrounding towns and challenged Jim Crow laws at every turn. On May 29, 1943, a Black soldier, Pvt. William Walker from the regiment was detained by a white military policeman and questioned, resulting in a fight. The county sheriff arrived, the private was shot and killed by the sheriff.

Shortly after, black soldiers stormed a supply room and took a number of rifles and planned to march on the town. A crowd gathered near the regimental exchange and a riot squad made up of Black military policemen fired into the crowd. Allegedly, only one soldier was wounded by this exchange and the soldiers returned to their barracks.

According to newspaper accounts, Centreville's mayor telegrammed the governor asking that the 364th be related to the North to avoid a serious race riot. Camp Van Dorn Commander R.E. Guthrie assured the local civilians that the disturbances had been controlled by military authorities. Another near-riot broke out in July 1943 at a service club dance on the base and the 99th was called to disperse a crowd of about 2,000. 

The Army high command in Washington, D.C., warned base and regimental commanders that they were to end racial violence or lose their jobs. The 364th's Morning Reports, a kind of company-by-company daily attendance sheet, note dozens of soldiers as AWOL following the Private Walker killing and its aftermath.

Killer's Confession

Carroll Case, a white Mississippi banker, artist, and writer born in 1939, heard "hushed rumors" of a mass killing of black troops during his childhood. In 1985, William Martzell, a maintenance man at the bank where Case was president confessed to Case about his participation in a massacre at Van Dorn. 

Martzell described a night in the fall of 1943 when he and other white troops and military police armed with machine guns surrounded the 364th's barracks. As quoted by Case, Martzell said, "We had the whole area sealed off–it was like shooting fish in a barrel. We opened fire on everything that moved, shot into the barracks, shot them out of trees, where some of them were climbing, trying to hide. . . ." 

Martzell explained the black soldiers were easily killed because the firing pins had been removed from all the black soldier's rifles. In 2001 the History Channel aired a documentary about the massacre titled, "Mystery of the 364th" shown below.

Case alleged the Army planned and executed the massacre of troops from the 364th and covered it up by informing next of kin the soldiers were killed in the line of duty and the bodies were not recoverable.

The book, pressure from a Mississippi congressman, Bennie Thompson, and the NAACP caused the Army to investigate the massacre allegations.

The Army spent more than 16 months trying to disprove allegations that 1,200 black soldiers were massacred during a racial disturbance at an Army camp in Mississippi during World War II. A final report was issued by the Army on Dec. 23, 1999, stating, "There is no documentary evidence whatsoever that any unusual or inexplicable loss of personnel occurred".

The Army based some of the conclusions in its 1999 report on records it kept classified. But the Army's report is riddled with dozens of factual errors, marred by gaps, and suffers from internal contradictions and conflicts with other Army records that diminish its credibility.

Army Clerk Claims of Forged and Changed Records

Malcolm LaPlace, a former 364th soldier, who told the makers of a documentary that his signature was forged on a key document, accused the Army of covering up the deaths of fellow soldiers by listing them as AWOL in regimental journals. LaPlace, who served as the regiment's clerk, said he is the one who made the changes at the request of the regiment commander, Col. John F. Goodman, who has since died.

"I worked with Col. Goodman for day after day, month after month. I sat at a desk right outside his office door," LaPlace stated. " I recall on four different occasions he had me revise journal entries. On one occasion he provided me with information for an entry that read 20 black soldiers had been found murdered. I typed it up and gave it to him. About an hour later he came back to me and he said, 'Sergeant, I have given you the wrong information.' What he gave me now read that 20 black soldiers were AWOL. Now how in hell do you go from murdered to absent without leave? That happened on three other occasions, when it was 10 [black soldiers murdered], and then about three, then one, all the same thing."

However, LaPlace says he never saw or heard about any mass shootings at Camp Van Dorn. 

In December 1943, the remaining men of the 364th were relocated to a camp in the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. It was then that their personnel roster began to show signs of loss. Nearly 1,000 enlisted men — a third of the regiment — disappeared from the Aleutians with no explanation. 


Just ten years before the Camp Dorn Massacre, Gen. Smedley Butler called war a racket. U.S. officials would not have wanted anything to hamper support for the war.

More than 60 million people were killed during World War II, including 419,400 U.S. Military deaths. Generals were sending tens of thousands of men to their deaths during single battles. The government certainly would not have jeopardized an entire war effort during WWII, to tell the truth about a massacre of rebellious black soldiers, that some white officials may have considered unpatriotic.

President Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger said, “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” Kissinger certainly wasn't the first U.S. official to believe that soldiers are pawns. When men at the highest levels of government feel this way, it's easy to understand how racist officers would have felt black soldiers were expendable. 

During World War II, when a family received word that their loved one was killed in the line of duty, missing in action or taken prisoner, they would have taken the information at face value and not questioned the truthfulness.

Unfortunately, the truth may never be known about what actually happened at Camp Dorn, but even rumors are often based on facts. I can't imagine a person near the end of his life lying about participating in a mass murder. What would he have to gain? 

The Army, on the other hand, has its reputation on the line and may be worried about the potential liability to the soldiers' families.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Orangeburg Massacre of African American College Students by Police

The Orangeburg massacre refers to the shooting and killing of peaceful unarmed black student protesters by white Highway Patrol officers in Orangeburg, SC, on the South Carolina State University campus on the evening of February 8, 1968.

Approximately 200 protesters peacefully demonstrated against racial segregation at a local bowling alley, All Star Bowling lane, without incident on February 6, 1968. The following night many of the students returned to resume the protest but  fifteen of them were arrested.

The third night, February 8th, the students gathered on the South Carolina State University campus instead of at the bowling alley. The students built a bonfire which a law enforcement officer attempted to put out. The officer was injured by a piece of a banister thrown from the crowd. The officers then opened fire into the crowd of students. 

Orangeburg three

Three of those peacefully assembled, Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, both SC State students and Delano Middleton, a 17-year-old high school student, were killed and twenty-seven other protesters were injured. 

Middleton was not involved in the protests. His mother worked as a maid on campus, and he often stopped there on his way home from basketball practice. In all, he was shot seven times, once in the heart. Henry "Smitty" Smith, an ROTC student and native of Marion, was shot three times, including in his neck. "Sam" or "Sammy" Hammond was a freshman from Barnwell who was studying to be a teacher. He was shot in the back and died on the floor of Orangeburg's segregated hospital. Also killed was the unborn child of Louise Kelly Cawley, age 27, one of the young women beaten during the protest at All Star Bowling. Cawley suffered a miscarriage the following week.

“They committed murder. Murder…that’s a harsh thing to say, but they did it,” …“The police lost their self control. They just started shooting. It was a slaughter. Double ought buckshot is what you use for deer. It’s meant to kill. One guy emptied his service revolver. That takes a lot of shooting. The (students) are running away. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow!  My God, there’s a murderous intent there. We are lucky more weren’t killed.” –  Ramsey Clark, U.S. Attorney General in 1968.

This tradedy was the first of its king on any American college campus. The massacre pre-dated the 1970 Kent State shootings and Jackson State killings, in which the National Guard at Kent State, and police and state highway patrol at Jackson State, killed student protesters demonstrating against the United States invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.


There were several incidents centering on the segregation of the local bowling alley, All Star Bowling Lane, that led up to the Orangeburg Massacre on February 8, 1968. In the fall of 1967, some of the black leaders within the community tried to convince Harry K. Floyd, the owner of the bowling alley, to allow African Americans.

Harry K. Floyd claimed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to his establishment because it was private. However, because the alley operated a lunch counter, it fell under the jurisdiction of laws regulating interstate commerce and thus federal desegregation. Floyd was unwilling to desegregate; as a result protests began in early February 1968.

On February 5, 1968, a group of around forty students from South Carolina State University entered the bowling alley and left peacefully after they were asked to leave by Floyd. The next night more students led by John Stroman returned and entered the bowling alley. This time there were police waiting for them and several students were arrested, including Stroman. After the arrests, more students began showing up, angry that protesters were being arrested. Next the crowd broke a window of the bowling alley and chaos ensued. Police began beating student protesters (both men and women) with billy clubs. That night, eight students were sent to the hospital. 

Over the next couple of days, the tension in Orangeburg escalated. Student protesters submitted a list of demands that consisted of integration and the elimination of discrimination within the community.

The Governor of South Carolina at the time, Robert E. McNair, responded by calling in the National Guard after commenting that black power advocates were running amok in the community.

Over the next two days, about 200 mostly student protesters gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college in Orangeburg, to demonstrate against the continued segregation at the bowling alley.

SC National Guard Troops arrive in Orangeburg on the night of February 8, 1968

By the late evening of February 8th, army tanks and over 100 heavily armed law enforcement officers had cordoned off the campus; 450 more had been stationed downtown.


On the night of February 8, 1968, students started a bonfire on the front of SC State's campus. As police and firefighters attempted to put out the fire, officer David Shealy was injured by a thrown object. Shortly thereafter (around 10:30 p.m.) South Carolina Highway Patrol Officers began firing into the crowd of around 200 protesters. Eight Patrol Officers fired carbines, shotguns, and revolvers at the protesters, which lasted around 10 to 15 seconds.

Twenty-seven people were injured in the shooting; most of whom were shot in the back as they were running away, and three African American men were killed. The three men killed were Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith (both SCSU students), and Delano Middleton, a student at the local Wilkinson High School. Middleton was shot while simply sitting on the steps of the freshman dormitory awaiting the end of his mother's work shift.

The police later said that they believed they were under attack by small arms fire.

A newspaper reported, "About 200 Negros  gathered and began sniping with what sounded like 'at least one automatic, a shotgun and other small caliber weapons' and throwing bricks and bottles at the patrolmen." Similarly, a North Carolina newspaper reported that week that students threw firebombs at buildings and that the sound of apparent sniper fire was heard.

Protesters insisted that they did not fire at police officers, but threw objects and insulted the men. An AP photographer on the scene, subsequently revealed that he heard no gunfire from the campus.


At a press conference the following day, Governor Robert E. McNair said the event was "…one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina". McNair blamed the deaths on outside Black Power agitators and said the incident took place off campus, contrary to the evidence.

Demonstrators protest the shootings.

The federal government brought charges against the state patrolmen in the first federal trial of police officers for using excessive force at a campus protest. The state patrol officers' defense was that they felt they were in danger and protesters had shot at the officers first. All nine defendants were acquitted although thirty-six witnesses stated that they did not hear gunfire coming from the protesters on the campus before the shooting and no students were found to be carrying guns.

In a state trial in 1970, the activist Cleveland Sellers, who had been shot during the attack, was convicted of a charge of riot related to the events on February 6 at the bowling alley. He served seven months in state prison, getting time off for good behavior. He was the national program director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1973 he wrote The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC.

Sellers earned his master's degree from Harvard and his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For eight years, he served as the president of Voorhees College, located in his hometown of Denmark, before stepping down in 2016 due to failing health.

Cleveland Sellers stands beside the historic marker on the S.C. State University campus at the 2000 Orangeburg memorial.

In 1993, twenty-five years after the massacre, Sellers was officially pardoned by the governor of South Carolina after evidence proved he was innocent.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Percy Julian – Chemical and Drug Pioneer

African-American chemist Percy Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs such as cortisone, steroids and birth control pills. His research at academic and corporate institutions led to the chemical synthesis of drugs to treat glaucoma and arthritis.

Percy Lavon Julian (April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975) was an African American research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine, and a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones progesterone and testosterone from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry's production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills.

He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the wild Mexican yam. His work helped greatly reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping to significantly expand the use of several important drugs

Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted (behind David Blackwell) from any field.

In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued the Julian stamp in the Black Heritage Commemorative Stamp series.

Early life and education

Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, as the first child of six born to James Sumner Julian and Elizabeth Lena Julian, née Adams. Both of his parents were graduates of what was to be Alabama State University. His father, James, whose own father had been a slave, was employed as a clerk in the Railway Service of the United States Post Office, while his mother, Elizabeth, worked as a schoolteacher. Percy Julian grew up in the time of racist Jim Crow culture and legal regime in the southern United States. Among his childhood memories was finding a lynched man hanged from a tree while walking in the woods near his home. At a time when access to an education beyond the eighth grade was extremely rare for African-Americans, Julian's parents steered all of their children toward higher education.

Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The college accepted few African-American students. The segregated nature of the town forced social humiliations. Julian was not allowed to live in the college dormitories and first stayed in an off-campus boarding home, which refused to serve him meals. It took him days before Julian found an establishment where he could eat. He later found work firing the furnace, waiting tables, and doing other odd jobs in a fraternity house; in return, he was allowed to sleep in the attic and eat at the house.

Julian is at top left. Juilan's advisor, William Blanchard, is in the bottom row, third from left. image © DePauw University & United Methodist Church

Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 as a Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian. By 1930 Julian's father would move the entire family to Greencastle so that all his children could attend college at DePauw. He still worked as a railroad postal clerk.

After graduating from DePauw, Julian wanted to obtain his doctorate in chemistry, but learned it would be difficult for an African-American to do so. Instead he obtained a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. In 1923 he received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry, which allowed him to attend Harvard University to obtain his M.S. However, worried that Euro-American students would resent being taught by an African-American, Harvard withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship, making it impossible for him to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard.

In 1929, while an instructor at Howard University, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1931. He studied under Ernst Späth and was considered an impressive student. In Europe, he found freedom from the racial prejudices that had stifled him in the States. He freely participated in intellectual social gatherings, went to the opera and found greater acceptance among his peers. Julian was one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry, after St. Elmo Brady and Dr. Edward M.A. Chandler.

After returning from Vienna, Julian taught for one year at Howard University. At Howard, in part due to his position as a department head, Julian became caught up in university politics, setting off an embarrassing chain of events. At university president Mordecai Wyatt Johnson's request, he goaded white Professor of chemistry, Jacob Shohan (Ph.D from Harvard), into resigning.

In late May 1932, Shohan retaliated by releasing to the local African-American newspaper the letters Julian had written to him from Vienna. The letters described "a variety of subjects from wine, pretty Viennese women, music and dances, to chemical experiments and plans for the new chemical building." In the letters, he spoke with familiarity, and with some derision, of specific members of the Howard University faculty, terming one well-known Dean, an "ass".

Around this same time, Julian also became entangled in an interpersonal conflict with his laboratory assistant, Robert Thompson. Julian had recommended Thompson for dismissal in March 1932. Thompson sued Julian for "alienating the affections of his wife", Anna Roselle Thompson, stating he had seen them together in a sexual tryst. Julian counter-sued him for libel. When Thompson was fired, he too gave the paper intimate and personal letters which Julian had written to him from Vienna. Dr. Julian's letters revealed "how he fooled the [Howard] president into accepting his plans for the chemistry building" and "how he bluffed his good friend into appointing" a professor of Julian's liking. Through the summer of 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American published all of Julian's letters. Eventually, the scandal and accompanying pressure forced Julian to resign. He lost his position and everything he had worked for.

Some happiness for Dr. Julian, however, was to come from this scandal. On December 24, 1935 he married Anna Roselle (Ph.D. in Sociology, 1937, University of Pennsylvania). They had two children: Percy Lavon Julian, Jr. (August 31, 1940 – February 24, 2008), who became a noted civil rights lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin;[20] and Faith Roselle Julian (1944– ), who still resides in their Oak Park home and often makes inspirational speeches about her father and his contributions to science.

At the lowest point in Julian's career, his former mentor, William Blanchard, threw him a much-needed lifeline. Blanchard offered Julian a position to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University in 1932. Julian then helped Josef Pikl, a fellow student at the University of Vienna, to come to the United States to work with him at DePauw. In 1935 Julian and Pikl completed the total synthesis of physostigmine and confirmed the structural formula assigned to it. Robert Robinson of Oxford University in the U.K. had been the first to publish a synthesis of physostigmine, but Julian noticed that the melting point of Robinson's end product was wrong, indicating that he had not created it. When Julian completed his synthesis, the melting point matched the correct one for natural physostigmine from the calabar bean.

Julian also extracted stigmasterol, which took its name from Physostigma venenosum, the west African calabar bean that he hoped could serve as raw material for synthesis of human steroidal hormones. At about this time, in 1934, Butenandt and Fernholz, in Germany, had shown that stigmasterol, isolated from soybean oil, could be converted to progesterone by synthetic organic chemistry.

Private sector work: Glidden

In 1936 Julian was denied a professorship at DePauw for racial reasons. DuPont had offered a job to fellow chemist Josef Pikl but declined to hire Julian, despite his superlative qualifications as an organic chemist, apologizing that they were "unaware he was a Negro". Julian next applied for a job at the Institute of Paper Chemistry (IPC) in Appleton, Wisconsin. However, Appleton was a sundown town, forbidding African Americans from staying overnight, stating directly: "No Negro should be bed or boarded overnight in Appleton."

Meanwhile, Julian had written to the Glidden Company, a supplier of soybean oil products, to request a five-gallon sample of the oil to use as his starting point for the synthesis of human steroidal sex hormones (in part because his wife was suffering from infertility). After receiving the request, W. J. O'Brien, a vice-president at Glidden, made a telephone call to Julian, offering him the position of director of research at Glidden's Soya Products Division in Chicago. He was very likely offered the job by O'Brien because he was fluent in German, and Glidden had just purchased a modern continuous countercurrent solvent extraction plant from Germany for the extraction of vegetable oil from soybeans for paints and other uses.

Julian at his desk at Glidden, where he worked from 1936 to 1954

Julian supervised the assembly of the plant at Glidden when he arrived in 1936. He then designed and supervised construction of the world's first plant for the production of industrial-grade, isolated soy protein from oil-free soybean meal. Isolated soy protein could replace the more expensive milk casein in industrial applications such as coating and sizing of paper, glue for making Douglas fir plywood, and in the manufacture of water-based paints.

At the start of World War II, Glidden sent a sample of Julian's isolated soy protein to National Foam System Inc. (today a unit of Kidde Fire Fighting), which used it to develop Aer-O-Foam, the U.S. Navy's beloved fire-fighting "bean soup." While it was not exactly Julian's brainchild, his meticulous care in the preparation of the soy protein made the fire fighting foam possible. When a hydrolyzate of isolated soy protein was fed into a water stream, the mixture was converted into a foam by means of an aerating nozzle. The soy protein foam was used to smother oil and gasoline fires aboard ships and was particularly useful on aircraft carriers. It saved the lives of thousands of sailors and airmen. Citing this achievement, in 1947 the NAACP awarded Julian the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor.


Julian's research at Glidden changed direction in 1940 when he began work on synthesizing progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone from the plant sterols stigmasterol and sitosterol, isolated from soybean oil by a foam technique he invented and patented. At that time clinicians were discovering many uses for the newly discovered hormones. However, only minute quantities could be extracted from hundreds of pounds of the spinal cords of animals.

In 1940 Julian was able to produce 100 lb of mixed soy sterols daily, which had a value of $10,000 ($80,000 today) as sex hormones. Julian was soon ozonizing 100 pounds daily of mixed sterol dibromides. The soy stigmasterol was easily converted into commercial quantities of the female hormone progesterone, and the first pound of progesterone he made, valued at $63,500 ($509,000 today), was shipped to the buyer, Upjohn, in an armored car. Production of other sex hormones soon followed.

His work made possible the production of these hormones on a larger industrial scale, with the potential of reducing the cost of treating hormonal deficiencies. Julian and his co-workers obtained patents for Glidden on key processes for the preparation of progesterone and testosterone from soybean plant sterols. Product patents held by a former cartel of European pharmaceutical companies had prevented a significant reduction in wholesale and retail prices for clinical use of these hormones in the 1940s. He saved many lives with this discovery.

Percy Julian circa 1940–1950

On April 13, 1949, rheumatologist Philip Hench at the Mayo Clinic announced the dramatic effectiveness of cortisone in treating rheumatoid arthritis. The cortisone was produced by Merck at great expense using a complex 36-step synthesis developed by chemist Lewis Sarett, starting with deoxycholic acid from cattle bile acids. On September 30, 1949, Julian announced an improvement in the process of producing cortisone. This eliminated the need to use osmium tetroxide, which was a rare and expensive chemical.[33] By 1950, Glidden could begin producing closely related compounds which might have partial cortisone activity. Julian also announced the synthesis, starting with the cheap and readily available pregnenolone (synthesized from the soybean oil sterol stigmasterol) of the steroid cortexolone (also known as Reichstein's Substance S), a molecule that differed from cortisone by a single missing oxygen atom; and possibly 17α-hydroxyprogesterone and pregnenetriolone, which he hoped might also be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis, but unfortunately they were not.

On April 5, 1952, biochemist Durey Peterson and microbiologist Herbert Murray at Upjohn published the first report of a fermentation process for the microbial 11α-oxygenation of steroids in a single step (by common molds of the order Mucorales). Their fermentation process could produce 11α-hydroxyprogesterone or 11α-hydroxycortisone from progesterone or Compound S, respectively, which could then by further chemical steps be converted to cortisone or 11β-hydroxycortisone (cortisol).

After two years, Glidden abandoned production of cortisone to concentrate on Substance S. Julian developed a multistep process for conversion of pregnenolone, available in abundance from soybean oil sterols, to cortexolone. In 1952, Glidden, which had been producing progesterone and other steroids from soybean oil, shut down its own production and began importing them from Mexico through an arrangement with Diosynth (a small Mexican company founded in 1947 by Russell Marker after leaving Syntex). Glidden's cost of production of cortexolone was relatively high, so Upjohn decided to use progesterone, available in large quantity at low cost from Syntex, to produce cortisone and hydrocortisone.

In 1953, Glidden decided to leave the steroid business, which had been relatively unprofitable over the years despite Julian's innovative work. On December 1, 1953, Julian left Glidden after 18 years, giving up a salary of nearly $50,000 a year (equivalent to $450,000 in 2016) to found his own company, Julian Laboratories, Inc., taking over the small, concrete-block building of Suburban Chemical Company in Franklin Park, Illinois.

On December 2, 1953, Pfizer acquired exclusive licenses of Glidden patents for the synthesis of Substance S. Pfizer had developed a fermentation process for microbial 11β-oxygenation of steroids in a single step that could convert Substance S directly to 11β-hydrocortisone (cortisol), with Syntex undertaking large-scale production of cortexolone at very low cost.

Oak Park and Julian Laboratories

Circa 1950, Julian moved his family to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, becoming the first African-American family to reside there. Although some residents welcomed them into the community, there was also opposition. Before they even moved in, on Thanksgiving Day, 1950, their home was fire-bombed.

The Julian home, which was firebombed twice when the family moved to Oak Park in 1950

Later, after they moved in, the house was attacked with dynamite on June 12, 1951. The attacks galvanized the community, and a community group was formed to support the Julians. Julian's son later recounted that during these times, he and his father often kept watch over the family's property by sitting in a tree with a shotgun.

In 1953, Julian founded his own research firm, Julian Laboratories, Inc. He brought many of his best chemists, including African-Americans and women, from Glidden to his own company. Julian won a contract to provide Upjohn with $2 million worth of progesterone (equivalent to $16 million today). To compete against Syntex, he would have to use the same Mexican yam Mexican barbasco trade as his starting material. Julian used his own money and borrowed from friends to build a processing plant in Mexico, but he could not get a permit from the government to harvest the yams. Abraham Zlotnik, a former Jewish University of Vienna classmate whom Julian had helped escape from the Nazi European holocaust, led a search to find a new source of the yam in Guatemala for the company.

In July 1956, Julian and executives of two other American companies trying to enter the Mexican steroid intermediates market appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. They testified that Syntex was using undue influence to monopolize access to the Mexican yam. The hearings resulted in Syntex signing a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. While it did not admit to restraining trade, it promised not to do so in the future. Within five years, large American multinational pharmaceutical companies had acquired all six producers of steroid intermediates in Mexico, four of which had been Mexican-owned.

Syntex reduced the cost of steroid intermediates more than 250-fold over twelve years, from $80 per gram in 1943 to $0.31 per gram in 1955. Competition from Upjohn and General Mills, which had together made very substantial improvements in the production of progesterone from stigmasterol, forced the price of Mexican progesterone to less than $0.15 per gram in 1957. The price continued to fall, bottoming out at $0.08 per gram in 1968.

In 1958, Upjohn purchased 6,900 kg of progesterone from Syntex at $0.135 per gram, 6,201 kg of progesterone from Searle (who had acquired Pesa) at $0.143 per gram, 5,150 kg of progesterone from Julian Laboratories at $0.14 per gram, and 1,925 kg of progesterone from General Mills (who had acquired Protex) at $0.142 per gram.

Despite continually falling bulk prices of steroid intermediates, an oligopoly of large American multinational pharmaceutical companies kept the wholesale prices of corticosteroid drugs fixed and unchanged into the 1960s. Cortisone was fixed at $5.48 per gram from 1954, hydrocortisone at $7.99 per gram from 1954, and prednisone at $35.80 per gram from 1956. Merck and Roussel Uclaf concentrated on improving the production of corticosteroids from cattle bile acids. In 1960 Roussel produced almost one-third of the world's corticosteroids from bile acids.

Julian Laboratories chemists found a way to quadruple the yield on a product on which they were barely breaking even. Julian reduced their price for the product from $4,000 per kg to $400 per kg. He sold the company in 1961 for $2.3 million (equivalent to $18 million today). The U.S. and Mexico facilities were purchased by Smith Kline, and Julian's chemical plant in Guatemala was purchased by Upjohn.

In 1964, Julian founded Julian Associates and Julian Research Institute, which he managed for the rest of his life.

National Academy of Sciences

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973 in recognition of his scientific achievements. He became the second African-American to be inducted, after David Blackwell.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Much of the content above republished under license from Wikipedia

33 Movies for Black History

We've included 21 full-length movies you can watch now on your computer or device and 12 additional movie trailer recommendations to watch during black history month and beyond. Unfortunately, we cannot possibly list every good move related to black history and there are plenty of excellent movies not included on this list. However, we hope you discover something new and enjoy watching.

Full Movies Which Were Available on the Date of Publication

The Vernon Johns Story (1994 Full Movie)

Vernon Johns (April 22, 1892 – June 11, 1965) was an American minister at several black churches in the South. He is best known as the pastor 1947-52 of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. He was succeeded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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King (1978 Full Movie)

King was a television miniseries based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. It aired for three consecutive nights on NBC from February 12 through 14, 1978. 

The Rosa Parks Story 2002

Something the Lord Made (2004 Full Movie)

Based on the true story of Vivien Thomas, a carpenter that wanted to be a doctor, unable to attend college he works for a real doctor as a janitor. Realizing what this young man is capable of the doctor gives him real tasks and as a team, they go to conquer what other people thought impossible. Based on a true story. Vivien Thomas became a black cardiac pioneer and his complex and volatile partnership with white surgeon Alfred Blalock, the world famous "Blue Baby doctor" who pioneered modern heart surgery.

Keep the Faith, Baby – Adam Clayton Powell Movie 2002

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (November 29, 1908 – April 4, 1972) was a Baptist pastor and an American politician, who represented Harlem, New York City, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71). He was the first person of African-American descent to be elected from New York to Congress. Oscar Stanton De Priest of Illinois was the first black person to be elected to Congress in the 20th century; Powell was the fourth. Re-elected for nearly three decades, Powell became a powerful national politician of the Democratic Party and served as a national spokesman on civil rights and social issues. 

Deacons for Defense 2003

The Deacons for Defense and Justice was an armed self-defense group of African-Americans that protected civil rights organizations in the U.S. Southern states during the 1960s.

The Tuskegee Airmen 1995

The Tuskegee Airmen was a group of the first African-American military aviators (fighter and bomber) in the United States Armed Forces who fought in World War II. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. All black World War II military pilots who trained in the United States trained at Moton Field, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, and were educated at Tuskegee University, located near Tuskegee, Alabama.

Ghost of Mississippi 1996

A Mississippi district attorney and the widow of Medgar Evers struggle to finally bring a white racist to justice for the 1963 murder of the civil rights leader. Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was a black civil rights activist from Mississippi who worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi and to enact social justice and voting rights. He was killed by a white segregationist.

Panther 1995

In October of 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was created in response to challenge police brutality in Oakland.

The Marva Collins Story 1981

Marva Delores Collins (August 31, 1936 – June 24, 2015) was an American educator who started the highly successful Westside Preparatory School in the impoverished Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago in 1975.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge 1999

Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) was an American film and theater actress, singer and dancer. She is perhaps best known for being the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones

The Josephine Baker Story 1991

Josephine Baker, born in St. Louis, MO, was a singer and entertainer who skyrocketed to international fame as a performer in Paris. Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship because of racism and became a French national and war hero during WWII.

The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992)

Based upon the history of the Jackson family, one of the most successful musical families in show business, and the early and successful years of the popular Motown group The Jackson 5.

The Temptations 1998

Biography of the singers who formed the hit Motown musical act, The Temptations.

Miss Evers Boys

The true story of the U.S. Government's 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which members of a group of black test subjects were allowed to die, despite a cure having been developed.

The Jackie Robinson Story 1950

Biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player in the 20th century. Traces his career in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues.

The Spook Who Sat By the Door 1973

A black man plays Uncle Tom in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to provide tactical training to street gang members to plot a Black American Revolution.

Sounder 1972

About a loving and strong family of black sharecroppers in Louisiana in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, facing a serious family crisis when the husband and father, is convicted of a petty crime and sent to a prison camp.

A Woman Called Moses 1978

Based on the life of Harriet Tubman, the escaped African American slave who helped to organize the Underground Railroad, and who led dozens of African Americans from enslavement in the Southern United States to freedom in the Northern states and Canada.

Ray 2004

The story of the life and career of the legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles.

Hoodlum 1997

A fictionalized account of the gang war between the Italian/Jewish mafia alliance and the Black gangsters of Harlem that took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s based on real events and characters. The film concentrated on Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne), Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), and Lucky Luciano. 

The video has been deleted, trailer now shown below.

12 Black Movie Trailers to Stream or Rent

Rosewood 1997

Based on historic events of the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, when a racist white lynch mob killed blacks and destroyed their black community.

Amistad 1997

Based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the United States Supreme Court in 1841.

Roots 1977

Roots was an American television miniseries based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family; the series first aired on ABC-TV in January 1977. (Goodbye Uncle Tom is another 70s Slave Movie which was virtually banned from the U.S.)

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Hidden Figures 2016

Hidden Figures is a 2016 American biographical drama film about female African-American mathematicians at NASA.

Malcolm X 1992

Malcolm X is a biographical drama about key events in Malcolm X's life: defining childhood incidents, his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. 

American Violet 2008

A single mother struggles to clear her name after being wrongly accused and arrested for dealing drugs in an impoverished town in Texas.

Belle 2013

Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th century England.

A Soldier's Story 1984

Not a true story, but an excellent look at the what was at stake for black people through the lens of the perceived humanity of our black soldiers.

Glory 1989

The film is about one of the first military units of the Union Army during the American Civil War to be made up entirely of African-American men (except for its officers), as told from the point of view of Colonel Shaw, its white commanding officer. 

The Cotton Club 1984

The Cotton Club was a famous night club in Harlem. The story follows the people that visited the club, those that ran it, and is peppered with the Jazz music that made it so famous. The Cotton Club was whites only but featured all black entertainment during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

Mississippi Burning 1988

Two FBI agents with wildly different styles arrive in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of some civil rights activists.

The Retrieval 2013

A fatherless 13-year-old black boy, who survives by working with a white bounty hunter gang who sends him to earn the trust of runaway slaves and wanted black men.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Ona Judge – George Washington’s Runaway Slave

Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington (born on February 22), the first President of the United States. Although it is commonly referred to as Presidents’ Day, the holiday is officially designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code.

George Washington's legacy as a champion of freedom is a false narrative, tarnished by the fact that he personally held and benefited from the labor of more than 120 slaves until his death.

Oney "Ona" Judge (c.1773—February 25, 1848), known as Oney Judge Staines after marriage, was a mixed-race slave on George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, in Virginia. As a child, she played with the Washingtons’ granddaughter Nelly. She also did chores for the Washingtons such as churning butter, cooking, candlemaking and washing clothes. Her mother taught her to sew, and it was as a seamstress that she was most valued. George Washington called her ‘a perfect Mistress of the needle.’

Ona Judge was afforded more comforts than most slaves, however, she risked it all to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom. When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York.

Memorial Plaque that is on the Philadelphia Presidential house that Oney escaped from.

In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and seven enslaved Africans, including Judge, then 16, to New York City in 1789 to work in his presidential household; the others were her half-brother Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Christopher Sheels, and William Lee.

Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia in 1790, Judge was one of nine slaves Washington took to that city to work in the President's House, together with Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Hercules, Richmond, Christopher Sheels, and "Postilion Joe" (Richardson).

As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change Washington couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

The President's House, Philadelphia, where Ona had her own room.

Washington signed into law, "The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793," which passed overwhelmingly by Congress and established the legal mechanism by which a slaveholder could recover his property. The Act made it a federal crime to assist an escaped slave or to interfere with his capture and allowed slave-catchers into every U.S. state and territory. 

Ona worked as a personal slave to First Lady Martha Washington in the presidential households in New York City and Philadelphia. George Washington’s term in office was nearing an end in May of 1796, and the family began preparing to return to Virginia. Ona plotted her escape. As she helped the Washingtons pack, she quietly passed her own possessions to her friends. Then one evening while the Washingtons were eating dinner she slipped out of the house and went into hiding. With the aid of Philadelphia's free black community, Judge escaped to freedom on May 21, 1796, and lived as a fugitive slave in New Hampshire for the rest of her life.

Washington placed an ad in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 23, offering a $10 reward for her return. The ad described her as:

…a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age. She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts…

Ona’s friends walked the docks of Philadelphia until they found a ship captain who would discreetly bring her to freedom. They arranged passage for her with Capt. John Bowles on his sloop the Nancy, which traveled between Philadelphia and Portsmouth, N.H.

Captain John Bowles

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two years old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

More is known about her than any other of the Mount Vernon slaves because she was twice interviewed by abolitionist newspapers in the mid-1840s.

Ona was born about 1773 at Mount Vernon. Her mother, Betty, was an enslaved seamstress; her father, Andrew Judge, was an English tailor working as an indentured servant at Mount Vernon. Oney had a half-brother Austin (c. 1757 – December 1794), and later a half-sister Delphy (c. 1779 – December 13, 1831).

Betty had been among the 285 African slaves held by Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711–1757). Custis died intestate (without a will), so his widow received a "dower share" – the lifetime use of one-third of his Estate, which included at least 85 enslaved Africans. Martha had control over these "dower" slaves but did not have the legal power to sell or free them. Upon Martha's marriage to George Washington in 1759, the dower slaves came with her to Mount Vernon, including Betty and then-infant Austin.

Under the legal principle of partus sequitur ventrem, incorporated into Virginia colonial law in 1662, the legal status of a child was the same as that of the enslaved mother, no matter who the father was. Because Betty was a dower slave, Austin, Oney, and Delphy also were dower slaves, owned by the Custis Estate. Upon the completion of his indenture, Andrew Judge settled in Alexandria, Virginia, some 11 miles away.

At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington. In an interview when she was nearly 75, Oney said she had received no education under the Washingtons, nor religious instruction.

Ona fled as the Washingtons were preparing to return to Virginia for a short trip between sessions of Congress. Martha Washington had informed her that she was to be given as a wedding present to the First Lady's granddaughter. Ona recalled in an 1845 interview:

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."

Runaway advertisements in Philadelphia newspapers document Judge's escape to freedom from the President's House on May 21, 1796. This one appeared in The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser on May 24, 1796:


Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.

She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is; but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.

Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.

FREDERICK KITT, Steward. May 23

Runaway Advertisement for Oney Judge. The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 24 May 1796.

Ona Judge was secretly placed aboard the Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain John Bowles and bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She may have thought she had found safe haven, but that summer she was recognized on the streets of Portsmouth by Elizabeth Langdon, the teenage daughter of Senator John Langdon and a friend of Nelly Custis. Washington knew of Judge's whereabouts by September 1, when he wrote to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, about having her captured and returned by ship.

At Wolcott's request, Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's collector of customs, interviewed Judge and reported back to him. The plan to capture her was abandoned after Whipple warned that news of an abduction could cause a riot on the docks by supporters of abolition. Whipple refused to place Judge on a ship against her will, but explained to Wolcott Ona had expressed great affection and reverence for the Washingtons and was willing to return voluntarily to the Washingtons if they would guarantee to free her following their deaths. 

"… a thirst for compleat freedom … had been her only motive for absconding." — Joseph Whipple to Oliver Wolcott, October 4, 1796.

An indignant Washington responded himself to Whipple:

"I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.

Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797. His nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., traveled to New Hampshire on business in September 1798 and tried to convince her to return. By this point, she was married to a free black seaman named Jack Staines (who was away at sea) and was the mother of an infant. Bassett met with her, but she refused to return to Virginia with him. Bassett was Senator Langdon's houseguest that night, and over dinner, he revealed his plan to kidnap her. This time Langdon helped Ona, secretly sending word for her to immediately go into hiding. Bassett returned to Virginia without her.

Washington and His Slaves

George Washington died on December 14, 1799; he directed in his will that his 124 slaves be freed after his wife's death. Martha instead signed a deed of manumission in December 1800, and the slaves were free on January 1, 1801.

Following Martha Washington's death in 1802, the dower slaves reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among the Custis heirs, her grandchildren. The 153 or so dower slaves at Mount Vernon remained enslaved, as neither George nor Martha could legally free them.

Oney Judge remained a dower slave all her life, and legally her children also were dower slaves, the property of the Custis estate, despite the fact that their father, Jack Staines, was a free man. Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the property rights of slaveholders; this superseded Staines's parental rights.

Following Washington's death, Oney Judge Staines probably felt secure in New Hampshire, as no one else in his family was likely to mount an effort to take her. But legally, she and her children remained fugitives until their deaths. Her daughters predeceased her by more than a decade, and it is not known what happened to her son.

Interviews with Ona Judge Staines were published in the May 1845 issue of The Granite Freeman and the January 1847 issue of The Liberator, both abolitionist newspapers. They contained a wealth of details about her life. She described the Washingtons, their attempts to capture her, her opinions on slavery, her pride in having learned to read, and her strong religious faith. When asked whether she was sorry that she left the Washingtons, since she labored so much harder after her escape than before, she said: "No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means."

Oney Judge Staines died in Greenland, New Hampshire, on February 25, 1848.

Unfortunately, as a child, I was brainwashed through propaganda and taught to celebrate, respect and view racist slave owners such as George Washington and Christopher Columbus as heroes even though they stole the freedom, dignity, and lives of others for their own benefit. 


Another slave of Washington's, Hercules who was greatly admired for his culinary skills, escape to freedom from Mount Vernon on February 22, 1797, Washington's 65th birthday. Hercules was the head cook at the mansion in the 1780s, cooking for the Washington family and their guests. Washington appreciated Hercules' skills in the kitchen so much that he brought him from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia to live and work in the presidential household.

Portrait of George Washington's slave and chef Hercules, by Gilbert Stuart.

Hercules was later legally manumitted under the terms of Washington's will. Hercules was probably born around 1755, and was either the child of Washington's slaves or was purchased following Washington's 1759 marriage to the widow Martha Custis. He would have grown up on the plantation. He chose Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785).

Miniature exhibit featuring George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, where Hercules escaped from, as it would have looked in 1799.

Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:

The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."

Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President's House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:

"Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion."

At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. It is possible that Hercules did not know he had been manumitted and legally was no longer a fugitive.Because Alice had been a "dower" slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally the property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the "dowers" divided among Martha Washington's four grandchildren following her 1802 death.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Some edited portions republished under license from the African American Intellectual History Society and Wikipedia: Ona Judge and  Hercules

Other Sources include: