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Honoring the Dream of Dr. King

Dr. Harvey MyersAdapted from the article "Retired Chemist Heard King's 'Dream' and Lives It," by John Liberty, Kalamazoo Gazette;
Photograph by Mark Bugnaski of the Kalamazoo Gazette

Retired chemist and University of Illinois chemistry graduate Harvey Myers has many of the memories frequently held in life: marriage, family, a long and successful career, in his case at the UpJohn Company. But in addition to these, he has some special and less common ones—the memories of his own role in the Civil Rights movement and of meeting the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1960s, Harvey Myers was a high school student living in Tampa, Fla., during the height of the Civil Rights era. His local theater insisted that it would not admit black patrons, and refused to change its policy. "We decided enough was enough," said Myers many years later in an interview with the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Gazette. Joining with other residents of the area and members of the NAACP, Myers stood outside the theater, demanding that the policies change.

Three days later, they did.

By this time, Myers was already familiar with the Civil Rights movement. He had, after all, been present at one of the most momentous days. On August 28, 1963, he sat close to the Lincoln Memorial and listened to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech. He didn't realize, he told the Gazette, the historic nature of the speech at the time.

Years later, Myers followed in King's footsteps, attending Morehouse College in Atlanta and joining the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. As a student at Morehouse, he had the opportunity to see King again, this time by attending a sermon delivered by the famous pastor. He recounted later that he didn't remember much of the sermon, but he shook King's hand when it was over. Only a few short years after the meeting, Myers heard the news that King had been assassinated.

"It was a very terrible time on our campus," Myers recalled. "We suspended classes, and we came together in the auditorium and talked about what we would do in honor of our most illustrious graduate."

As the years passed, Myers lived up to the goal of honoring King, fulfilling the words of "I Have a Dream." After Morehouse, he joined the graduate program in chemistry at the University of Illinois. He worked with John Katzenellenbogen, who said, "Harvey was a student who combined commitment, diligence, and persistence in the laboratory with a kind demeanor and a sense of humanity. He did great work and was uniformly liked and respected."

After obtaining his Ph.D. degree, Myers worked with Dr. Stanley Smith to learn computer-assisted instruction. He then took a job at the UpJohn Company at a time when UpJohn only employed six blacks with doctoral degrees. Not deterred by the situation, Myers undertook the task of traveling to historically black colleges, seeking to encourage the students there to work at UpJohn.

In recent years, Myers says that though the industry has gotten away from this manner of recruitment, he recalls that during his time at UpJohn he worked in a hospitable environment. He states that while "I know it (racism) was around me … I don't remember any incidents that angered me or set me off. I did not work in a hostile environment."

A recent retiree, Myers still works to honor the dream, even 40 years later. An active volunteer with Community Advocates for Parents and Students (CAPS), a local Kalamazoo organization that tutors students ranging from kindergarten to high school, he also remains a member of his local chapter of the NAACP.

"Stay in school," he tells the kids he works with. "Get as much education as you can. No one can take that away from you."

Interview With Harvey Myers

What prompted you to choose the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois as your graduate school?

The short answer is that the University of Illinois is a great school. One of my Morehouse College professors, Dr. Charles Merideth (B.S. Morehouse College, Ph.D. University of California-Berkeley) recommended it. Illinois was, and still is, ranked in the top ten chemistry Ph.D.-granting universities in the country.

The long answer: In freshman chemistry at Morehouse College, my chemistry professor and chair of the department, Dr. Henry C. McBay (B.S. Wiley College, Ph.D. University of Chicago) stated that Morehouse College graduates had earned Ph.D.s in chemistry from every major university in the country except Harvard and University of Illinois. My classmate, John Hall turned to me and said, "I am going to Harvard and you should go to University of Illinois." John earned his degree from Harvard in 1974 and I earned my degree from Illinois in the same year.


Were you aware at that time of the Department of Chemistry's history as the first institution to award a Ph.D. degree to an African-American chemist, St. Elmo Brady, in 1916?


I was aware of St. Elmo Brady earning his degree from Illinois. I have several books on black scientists in America. Aside from my undergraduate chemistry professor, Dr. Henry McBay, and my graduate advisor, Dr. John Katzenellenbogen, my most influential chemist was Dr. Percy Julian. I read about Dr. Julian while I was still a student in high school trying to decide what major I wanted to choose once I got to college. I also visited Dr. Julian's laboratory in Chicago and I own the video "Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius"

 

How would you describe your experience at the Department of Chemistry?

I had a very rewarding, enjoyable, enlightening, yet scientifically challenging, experience at the University of Illinois.

Are there any memories that stand out to you from your time here?

I recall several interesting times, some hilarious, some proud, some were humbling, and some frightening.

When I first walked into Biochemistry 350 at Illinois and there were more than 100 students from many of the major colleges in the United States, I thought that I had made a mistake. Since I had just graduated from Morehouse College where during my senior year I had, at most, ten students in my largest class, I called my mother and told her that I would be home at the end of the week.

I was inspired each time I was chosen as a co-author on a scientific publication. I am proud to say that I have authored numerous scientific and/or technical reports since leaving the University of Illinois.

I was proud to have only needed to take seven cumulative exams. In the group of cumulative exams, each graduate student had to pass six exams before they failed six. I only failed one.

I was humbled, yet proud, when I was notified that I was a candidate for induction into Phi Lambda Upsilon Honorary Chemical Society.

I recall waiting for the elevator in Roger Adams Laboratory along with Dr. Adams. When the elevator door opened, he said "after you" and I said "no, after you." We both missed the elevator.

I was frustrated when I synthesized 6-diazo-estradiol, yet because of its thermal instability, I was unable to isolate it to physically characterize it. I worked weeks, to no avail, to isolate this compound.


Has your experience at Illinois impacted you later in your career? If yes, how so?


Yes. Whenever, I encounter a difficult scientific problem, or any major problem for that matter, I always tell myself that I had attended school with and learned from the best at Illinois and Morehouse, I can solve this one.


What advice do you have for future chemists considering Illinois?


Illinois is a great school and you get to interact, study, and learn with the best in the world. You can succeed at Illinois, and you can succeed anywhere.

To read the full Department of Chemistry Newsletter, please visit us at chemistry.illinois.edu/newsletter

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