My friend Faith Julian is defined, like most of us, by her experiences. In order to better understand these extraordinary experiences, we need to spend some time with her father.
Percy Julian was a research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs, made mostly from soy beans. He was one of the first people of African-American decent to receive a doctorate in chemistry. His work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone and birth control pills as well as other inventions. He was responsible for the synthesis of vitamin D3, a chemical foam used in firefighting, and the LCD in your LCD television.
Born in 1899, Dr. Julian's grandparents were slaves. He grew up in Jim Crow Alabama at a time when it was illegal for Black people to attend school past the 8th grade. Despite that, and armed only with his eighth grade education, he went on to attend college and eventually earn his doctorate and become famous.
In the early 1950s, he moved his family into an exclusive all-white neighborhood in Oak Park, Illinois. Acceptance by the community was slow in coming. Due to move into their house on Thanksgiving Day, 1950, they were unable to do so because it was firebombed the day before. Undeterred, Dr. Julian moved his family into the house the next spring, only to have it dynamited. Faith, then age seven, cowered in her bedroom as the dynamite landed just short of her window. She was so frightened that her parents didn't tell her about the accompanying death threats until years later.
Continuing on its unwelcoming path, the city then decided to turn off the Julian's water. The bright spot here is that some of the citizenry got together and badgered them into turning it back on. Dr. Julian then took to patrolling his property with a shotgun. After a time, he hired a bodyguard, who guarded the family for the next two years.
Meanwhile, Faith was enrolled in an all-white school system that proved to be no more accommodating than the city in which it was located. The Julians immediately received threatening letters. Faith happened to be born with a hand defect, and the school bullies focused on that along with her skin color. She was not only called horrible names but was also cornered and punched in the stomach on numerous occasions. At one point, her mother came upon a group of boys as they were beating her daughter and was able to make them stop. But when I asked Faith why no one told the authorities at school, her reply was "Because it wouldn't have made any difference."
That was Faith's experience as a child. As a teenager, things didn't get any better. Late one night she was taking an elevated train home on her own because she had had an argument with her boyfriend, when the train suddenly broke down. Everyone had to disembark and wait in the dark, February cold for a bus to pick them up. Faith wanted to call her parents, so she left the group and went looking for a phone booth (there were no cell phones back then.) After a time, she heard footsteps behind her and was suddenly confronted by a man with a knife. In her terror, she lost consciousness, so she has, perhaps mercifully, no memory of the assault. There was never an investigation. One thing she does remember, though, is that her attacker was white.
With all these bad experiences, one would think that Faith would be nursing a fine hatred toward white people. If anyone has a legitimate cause to dislike them, it is Faith. But not so. She is her father's daughter, and her father was an infinitely fair man who was careful to judge people individually by their character. He passed on that sense of fairness to his daughter.
Faith and I became friends long ago when we met at Cook County Court Services in Chicago at a job I was ill-prepared for, but managed to somehow grow into. We have been friends for more than fifty years and I have cherished her for every one of those years. Even if I didn't stand in amazement at what she has overcome, I would still value her for her intelligence, her sweet nature, and her ability to endure, despite everything.
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