November 23 Illinois History Minute
It’s November 23rd --- and on this day in 1950, a house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park was firebombed. A few months later, the house was attacked with dynamite. Percy Julian, a research chemist for the Glidden company, moved his family into the house all the same, becoming Oak Park’s first Black residents. Despite the violent attacks, Julian attracted a group of supporters, who welcomed him as neighbors.
Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of plant-based medicinal drugs. He developed methods for synthesizing the human hormones progesterone and testosterone, and laid the foundation for the production of Cortisone and birth control pills.
But that’s not what Julian talked about in a speech he gave in 1952 at the University of Illinois, which was recorded by WILL Radio. Instead, he focused on America’s progress in civil rights, arguing that lack of action in that area was hurting the country’s reputation abroad. He noted the treatment of Black people he saw on the university campus during a previous visit 16 years earlier.
“And I remember how my heart ached when I came here,” Julian said, “and saw the handful of Negro girls in this university, trudging along every day down to the dingy Illinois Central station for their lunch, because it was the only place in this community that would feed them without insult at that time.”
Julian said he saw signs of greater acceptance of Black students by whites in 1952, and that the U.S. had progressed overall in the field of civil rights. But he told his audience not to accept “gradualism”, and to work deliberately for racial justice.
“Many of us know that until we resolutely clean house,” said Julian, “we cannot occupy the role of faultless prophets for a sick world.”