WHENEVER PERCY JULIAN TOLD his friends about his life, and how he had overcome all the obstacles from his beginning as the grandson of a slave, born “at the corner of Jeff Davis Avenue and South Oak Street in Montgomery, Alabama, the Capital in the cradle of the confederacy,”1 to scientist, inventor, business leader, humanist, protagonist of human rights, he liked to illustrate this long arduous climb by Donald Adams’ The Seventh Fold:
My dear friends, who daily climb uncertain hills in the countries of their minds, hills that have to do with the future of our country and of our children, may I humbly submit to you, the only thing that has enabled me to keep doing the creative work, was the constant determination: Take heart! Go farther on! 2 This imperative, go on! , characterizes not only his life but his research, where each answer created at least two new questions and led to the exponential growth of science as Percy experienced it in his lifetime. With this growth, he later realized the concomitant responsibility and questions of ethics.
Percy Julian was born on April 11, 1899, the oldest of six children of James Sumner Julian, a railway mail clerk, and his wife, Elizabeth Lena Adams. Since 1976 his birthday has been a holiday for the Village of Oak Park, a fashionable suburb of Chicago where the Julian family has resided since 1950, initially under precarious conditions (the Julian home, the first in the neighborhood to be owned by a black family, was the victim of arsonists on Thanksgiving Day, 1950, and the target of a dynamite bomb on June 12, 1951), and where other famous people, such as Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright, had their residences.
Because Percy’s father was a federal employee, the family held a higher status than most blacks of that day. This advantage, and the fact that his well-read father had a great love for mathematics and philosophy, helped him on the way to a formal education. Clearly, his must have been “a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought” (Wordsworth), or “a restless curiosity about things which he cannot understand” (Pascal), but the cultural and, above all, religious tradition in his family provided not only a epository of substantive values, but also a coding device for new ideas and achievements. That “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all practical wisdom” was taught him, and not in Latin, by his revered paternal great-grandfather. My children and my friends all know him as Grandpa Cabe because they’ve heard me speak about him so many times. My great-grandfather, with the rest of us that day, was singing in the cotton field, where we children, particularly Dr.
James Julian, my next brother, and I were sent to my grandfather’s farm to work during the summer. We were singing on that day a beautiful spiritual, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. ” “Grandpa Cabe,” I asked, “what’s a balm in Gilead? ” “Well, Sonny, you see, Gilead was a famous town in Israel for the manufacture of salves to heal wounds and sores,” he told me. “And they called these salves balms.
Now one day Jeremiah was having a hard time trying to lead his people the right way. Everything was going wrong for Jeremiah, and he cried out in anguish, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? ‘ You see, what he was saying was, ‘Ain’t there no way out? ‘ I want you to know that, Sonny, because I believe there is always a way out. ” It was then that I made my vow–that I would forever fight to keep hope alive because there is always a way out . . . . His optimism was one of the most pertinent lessons I learned as a youngster. Next t
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