Initial Conditions Episode 7: The African American Presence in Physics

Initial Conditions Episode 7: The African American Presence in Physics

The images, texts, and details that did not make it into this week’s episode of Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast.

At its annual meeting In 1999, the American Physical Society prepared to celebrate its centennial anniversary. Following a plenary and reception for international attendees on March 20th, the meeting kicked off with a centennial address titled “A Century of Physics” (though physics had, of course, been around longer than the APS), delivered by former APS president D. Allan Bromley on the afternoon of March 21st. Three centennial symposia covering topics such as developments in instrumentation and measurements during the twentieth century, science policy for the new millennium, and the breakthroughs that women had achieved in physics followed Bromley’s address. The annual meeting that year would be an opportunity to look back on what the organization had achieved. It also offered a chance to look forward toward the new century. 

Portrait of Ronald Mickens

Portrait of Ronald Mickens with a book in his hand.

Media Credits

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection.

The centennial meeting was held in Atlanta, Georgia, where Ron Mickens was the Fuller E. Callaway Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics at Clark Atlanta University. Since 2020 he has added Emeritus to his title. Mickens is adept at pursuing research topics that he finds interesting, even if it means ignoring disciplinary boundaries; currently, he focuses on mathematical epidemiology, but his research interests have been diverse. As he puts it in his oral history, “I don’t try to constrain myself. I work on what I am interested in. And the PhD in theoretical physics has allowed me to do that.” Mickens is also a historian of science, focusing on the community of African American physicists and the contributions Black scientists have made to the field. Prior to its centennial meeting, APS asked Mickens if he would be interested in creating an exhibit showcasing prominent Black physicists, both living and deceased. Mickens enthusiastically accepted the request. The materials that he used to construct the exhibit, appropriately called “The African American Presence in Physics,” are now held in the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. The episode for this week is based on those materials.

Mickens worked diligently to prepare the exhibit in time for the centennial meeting. In 1999 the community of Black physicists in the United States was small, and Mickens went about contacting every reputable African American physicist he could find. His work was aided by his previous historical research. Many individuals in the first generation of African American physicists—which consisted of those who received their degrees in the 1920s-1960s—had passed away. Mickens frequently submitted obituaries on their behalf to Physics Today, and used the research he had done on their lives in the APS exhibit. Mickens also allowed the subjects of his exhibit to tell their own stories. Working with Horton-Lind, a communications firm based in Atlanta, Mickens contacted Black physicists across the United States, asking them to submit biographical details and headshots. 

Donald Edwards with a picture of Ron McNair.

Portrait of Donald Edwards.

Media Credits

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection.

For the most part, respondents submitted just those items; in many cases, however, they sent a great deal of personal material. Cheryl McNair, wife of the astronaut and physicist Ron McNair, sent his mission patches, official NASA photographs, and other material along with a handwritten note addressed to Mickens. The two Rons had been close since their first meeting at MIT in the 1970s. McNair tragically perished thirteen years prior to the APS centennial in the 1986 Challenger disaster, along with his six crewmates, after their shuttle underwent a critical structural failure and disintegrated high above the Atlantic Ocean. As an undergraduate student at North Carolina A&T, a historically Black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, McNair had studied under Donald Edwards, who founded the college’s Physics Department. Although Edwards passed away at the age of 94, just a few months after the APS centennial exhibit, he lived long enough to submit materials to Mickens commemorating his former student. In many of the headshots that Edwards submitted for the exhibit, he posed next to a framed picture of McNair.

The Mickens Collection also includes excerpts from the dissertation that Willie Hobbs Moore, the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in physics in the United States, submitted to the University of Michigan in 1972. For reference, Edward Bouchet, the first African American man to earn a doctorate in physics, was awarded his Ph.D. by Yale University in 1876. Almost a century later, Moore became the first Black woman to do so. Moore’s dissertation adviser Samuel Krimm sent Mickens material from her student days, which enriches our perspective on the experience of this trailblazing woman in the field of physics. Moore also passed away prior to the exhibit’s opening, in 1994.

Mickens collected abundant material pertaining to the life and career of Elmer Imes. Imes was the second Black man to earn a doctorate in physics in the United States, which he received from the University of Michigan in 1918, forty-two years after Bouchet. Imes attended Fisk as an undergraduate student, where he studied science. After finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, Imes went to New York City, where he met Nella Larson, a respected novelist active in the Harlem Renaissance literary scene. Their marriage was tumultuous, and culminated in a divorce in 1933, four years after Imes left New York for Nashville, where he established the Department of Physics at Fisk University.

James Raymond Lawson working with equipment.

James Raymond Lawson working with equipment.

Media Credits

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection.

In 1935, James Lawson became the first student to graduate with a physics degree from Fisk. Imes took a special interest in Lawson and served as his mentor. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Lawson enrolled in the physics graduate program at the University of Michigan, his mentor’s alma mater, and earned a Ph.D. in 1939. After teaching at several historically Black colleges and universities, Lawson returned to Fisk in 1942 as the second Chair of the Department of Physics, one year after Imes’s death. At Fisk, Lawson established the Fisk Infrared Spectroscopy Institute, which remains operational today. In addition to his research, Lawson was a respected educator, and the intellectual relationship he had with Imes was emulated many times as successive cohorts enrolled in the physics major. Mickens became one of Lawson’s mentees soon after he matriculated to Fisk University in 1960. In 1967, Lawson became President of Fisk. In 1996, recognizing his extensive service to the University, the Fisk Board of Trustees offered Lawson a home to live in on campus and an honorary Ph.D. Lawson lived on the Fisk campus until his death later that year.

The story of Imes, Lawson, and Mickens shows how important mentorship has been to increasing the presence of African Americans in the field of physics. Donald Edward’s decision to include a framed portrait of Ronald McNair in the headshots he submitted for the centennial exhibit also serves as a visible reminder of the significance of mentorship. In 1972, Mickens and his colleague James Young decided to hold an event to honor senior Black physicists who had mentored the cohort of younger scholars, those who earned their doctorates in the late 1960s and 1970s. The event took place at Fisk University. Mickens served as the primary organizer. The three honorees were Halson V. Eagleson, Edwards, and John M. Hunter. In 1973, Eagleson, Edwards, and Hunter were credited with educating ninety percent of all Black physicists in the United States. In 1975, a second National Physics Award Ceremony was held at Morehouse University. In 1976, based on conversations that took place at the award ceremonies, the physicists who attended decided to launch an annual Day of Scientific Lectures, which would take place on different historically Black college campuses. Along with discussions about annual lectures came a larger conversation about forming a national organization for African Americans in physics. That conversation culminated in the inauguration of the Society of Black Physicists, later renamed the National Society of Black Physicists, in 1977. The NSBP continues to increase the number of African Americans pursuing physics degrees and provides support and opportunities for Black physicists.

The community of African American physicists (and physicists of color more generally) remains small compared to that of white physicists. Undoubtedly, though, the number of Black students pursuing physics degrees has increased during the twenty-first century. While there are important obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of diversity in the field, the efforts of earlier generations to support younger Black physicists has clearly achieved a great deal. The Mickens collection, like the centennial APS meeting, offers an opportunity to look back on the history of Black physicists, and consider how Black physicists might continue to grow their numbers in the future. Mentorship, perseverance, and innovative research are all evident in the Mickens Collection. As more Black students pursue physics degrees, the same qualities will remain evident in future generations. 

You can listen to Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast wherever you get your podcasts. A new episode will be released every Thursday so be sure to subscribe! On our website, you will find transcripts, show notes, and our suggested resources to learn more about each topic we discuss. 

Bibliography

Mickens, Ronald E., editor. Edward Bouchet: The First African-American Doctorate. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2002.

Mickens, Ronald E., editor. The African American Presence in Physics. Atlanta: Ronald E. Mickens, 1999. Available here.

 

 

About the Author

Justin Shapiro

Justin Shapiro outside portrait

Justin Shapiro. Image credit: Hyun Joo Kim

Justin Shapiro is a historian of the environment and technology. His interests include environmental justice, climate history, the environmental history of cities, and the history of infrastructure. His most recent publication can be found in the October 2022 issue of the Journal of Transport History. During his time at NBL&A, Justin has enjoyed researching the history of climate science, the history of the African American presence in physics, and pseudoscience, among other topics.

See all articles by Justin Shapiro.

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