Wikipedia editing can sometimes be intimidating just because of the sheer scale of the site. There is so much to edit, so many pages to create, and so many things to link and cite and copy edit… it can be overwhelming!
It is exciting, then, when a set of archival materials presents itself as very obviously and urgently lending itself to article content. This was the case with the Ronald Mickens collection on African-American physicists: a rich source of information about prominent African American scientists, many of whom were not yet represented on Wikipedia. The collection is composed of individual biographical files on African American physicists going back to Edward A. Bouchet and Elmer Imes: the first and second African American people to receive a PhD in physics, respectively.
Much of the collection’s content comes from Mickens’ own research for drafting obituaries for Physics Today, as well as from materials solicited by the National Society of Black Physicists for an exhibit highlighting the accomplishments of African American physicists. What results in full is an amazing look at the history of African American physicists (this material was also compiled in a book by Mickens, The African American Presence in Physics).
From the Archives to Wikipedia
To bring this information to Wikipedia, I first parsed out which individuals from the collection’s roster had existing pages, if those needed improvement through the addition of supplementary sources and images, and which individuals did not yet have any Wikipedia content. Of the 63 individuals highlighted in the collection, 39 had Wikipedia pages when I began this project.
It is worth noting here that Wikipedia has numerous and systemic issues regarding bias in its content and who is ultimately represented on the site: there is even a Wikipedia page on that very topic. This is pervasive both in article subjects as well as the demographics of its editors. As an overt example, the category “African-American physicists” on the English Wikipedia has 71 biographies currently, which is significantly disproportionate to other categories dominated by white physicists. The category “20th-century American physicists,” for example, has 1,142 biographies total. “Physicists from Missouri” has 66 biographies. These disparities are a pattern that follows in categories focusing on women and other minority groups.
Of the 24 individuals featured in the collection without Wikipedia pages, I created 15 biographies so far for those scientists. I approached articles using a combination of resources that were provided within the Mickens collection (some files were more robust than others) and other sources I could find in our archives and online. Here is a linked list of those biographies:
This leaves 9 remaining biographies that could be made from the individuals highlighted in the collection. Which brings me to another Wikipedia caveat, in that there is always room to improve and more pages to add! And while Wikipedia is a valuable resource, it is only a start to recognizing the work of these scientists and their contributions.
See the end of this article for photos of some of the above physicists from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
The First Honorees of (what would become) the National Society of Black Physicists
One of the related pages I edited within this project was the page for the National Society of Black Physicists. Over the course of my research, I discovered that the first meeting of what would become the NSBP, held in 1972 at Fisk University, was in honor of three physicists included in the Mickens collection: Halson V. Eagleson, Donald A. Edwards, John McNeile Hunter.
In his article documenting the history of the NSBP, “The Genesis of the National Society of Black Physicists,” Mickens described that:
“These ‘elders’ served as role models, provided the required intellectual tools for success in graduate school, and gave (when needed) both emotional and financial support to their students. ... All these individuals were well known in our community, were considered excellent teachers, and had trained large numbers of students who completed the requirements for advanced degrees in physics.”
The society was formally established in 1977, but this initial meeting provided the foundation for how the organization would ultimately come together. In another article about the early days of the organization, James C. Davenport described Eagleson, Edwards, and Hunter in the following terms:
“These individuals were pioneers who had to create their own roles — often laboring
under inadequate working conditions and lacking basic equipment. Nevertheless, they were
consistently productive in the roles they created. These brave souls had to follow a different
path from their counterparts in the majority institutions, and they channeled their energies
into sharing their zest and enthusiasm for learning with their students — serving as role
models and mentors — providing leadership and guidance — as well as building self-esteem and instilling in their students the knowledge that the world was their oyster and that they were
capable of reaching the highest height.”
It was clear to me that all three of these individuals should be included on Wikipedia, and it was a particular goal to write their pages and to link them to the Wikipedia page for the NSBP. All three now have Wikipedia articles, alongside the other subjects from the Mickens collection. Here are overviews of those three biographies, featuring photos from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.
Halson V. Eagleson
The photo above is from the first meeting of what would become the National Society of Black Physicists. At left is Dr. Halson V. Eagleson, who was the fifth African American person to receive a PhD in physics in the United States and the first African American person to receive a PhD in physics from Indiana University.
Eagleson was from a prominent family in Bloomington, Indiana, with a strong legacy at Indiana University. He attended the university for both his undergraduate and graduate studies and was also the first African American student in its Sigma Xi honors society, and the first African American student to earn an "I" letter in band (an honor equivalent to a varsity letter in athletics; the “I” would have been worn on a student’s letter jacket). For the latter achievement, Eagleson was put through an extreme act of racial violence: as he was preparing to earn the “I” at a Purdue-Indiana football game, he was kidnapped by students affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and prevented from attending. He was eventually found, and his kidnappers brought to trial, though none were charged. Despite this hate crime, Eagleson went on to earn the “I” letter.
After graduating, Eagleson embarked on a lengthy teaching and research career. He began as an instructor at Morehouse College (where he was also band director), and also worked jointly at Clark Atlanta University. In 1947, he was hired as a professor at Howard University, where he taught for more than two decades. His research largely focused on acoustics and the nature of sound.
In 2022, the city of Bloomington renamed the north–south street that cuts through the Indiana University campus to Eagleson Avenue, honoring the Eagleson family.
Donald A. Edwards
Donald Anderson Edwards was another of the three honored at the first pre-NSBP meeting. Anderson studied at Talladega College, as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh for his graduate studies. He began his career teaching at numerous colleges in the South, all of them historically Black colleges and universities. He eventually was hired at North Carolina State A&T University in 1953, where he became the first chair and founder of the school’s physics department and curriculum. His research largely centered on X-ray crystallography throughout his career.
Edwards, as leader of the physics program, taught a number of prominent students over the course of his career, including Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, who were both members of the Greensboro Four, and Ronald McNair, who would go on to become a NASA astronaut and the second African American person to go to space, and who was killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. McNair frequently credited Edwards for putting him on the path toward his PhD in physics, and his eventual success in the astronaut selection process.
Edwards was also honored as one of the first three people to receive a citation from the American Physical Society, which recognized him for his contributions to the physics community and work making physics education available to Black students.
John McNeile Hunter
John McNeile Hunter was the third physicist recognized in that first meeting. Upon receiving his PhD in 1937 from Cornell University, he also became the third African American person to receive a PhD in physics, following Elmer Imes, who had received his degree in 1918.
Hunter grew up in La Porte and Jennings Island, Texas, where as a child he had to cross more than two miles of open water to reach his elementary classroom. He attended the Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then Cornell University for his graduate studies. While completing his master’s degree, he began teaching at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), where he also worked as a power plant operator. At the time, the school did not have a physics department, and Hunter was instrumental in establishing its physics curriculum. He would remain at Virginia State for his entire career, becoming the first chair of the physics department.
It is estimated Hunter taught more than 4,000 students over the course of his career, including Herman Branson and Rutherford H. Adkins. Another of his students was James Stith, who recalled his experiences with Hunter at Virginia State in his oral history interview. Stith, who went on to become director of AIP’s physics programs, described that Hunter had “very low tolerance for mediocrity,” and that he ultimately helped Stith gain admission to the Virginia State physics master’s program to study in his lab.
Dr. Scott Williams, who created the “Physicists of the African Diaspora” website, described Hunter as having done “as much as any single individual in America to add physics to the curriculum of Black students and to add black students to the professional rosters of physics.”
Notes and further reading
Davenport, James C. (March 1999). Mickens, Ronald (ed.). “The National Society of Black Physicists: Reflections on Its Beginning.” The African American Presence in Physics. https://radar.auctr.edu/islandora/object/cau.ir%3A1999_mickens_ronald_e
Harris, Shakkira. “Jordan Avenue in Bloomington being renamed Eagleson Avenue.” WRTV. (3 December 2021). https://www.wrtv.com/news/local-news/monroe-county/bloomington/jordan-avenue-in-bloomington-being-renamed-eagleson-avenue
Hauman, Jaime. “Greensboro Four: David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), Joe McNeil.” NCpedia. 2010. https://www.ncpedia.org/greensboro-four
Interview of James Stith by Will Thomas on 2009 August 14, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33903
Mandiberg, Michael. “Wikipedia's Race and Ethnicity Gap and the Unverifiability of Whiteness.” Social Text 1 March 2023; 41 (1 (154)): 21–46. https://read.dukeupress.edu/social-text/article/41/1%20(154)/21/344220/Wikipedia-s-Race-and-Ethnicity-Gap-and-the
Mickens, Ronald. “The Genesis of the National Society of Black Physicists.” Appendix D, Edward Bouchet -The First African-American Doctorate: 09-114. https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/history/teaching-guides/nsbp-origins/Mickens_TheGenesisoftheNSBP.pdf