Question of the Month:

Why Focus on the Negative?

January 2007

Q:  Instead of always focusing on the negative, why doesn't your museum talk about the accomplishments of African Americans who lived during the Jim Crow period? By focusing on the negative you imply that African Americans were passive victims who contributed little.

-- Shaun Thomlinson, Union, Alabama

A:  The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia is, by definition, a themed museum that focuses on the relationship between Jim Crow segregation and anti-Blacks everyday objects. However, your point about Jim Crow Era-African Americans not being "passive victims" is a valid one -- and we plan to highlight this fact when the museum moves into a larger facility. The achievements of Blacks in the sciences, for example, are testimonies to the resiliency of African Americans, in particular, and humans, generally. I will take this opportunity to briefly discuss Ernest Everett Just, a brilliant African American scientist who did not allow racial prejudice and discrimination to stop him from contributing to our scientific understanding.

Ernest Everett Just Just was born on August 14, 1883, in Charleston, South Carolina to parents Charles Frazier Just and Mary Matthews Just. His grandfather, Charles Just, was a prominent member of Charleston's free Black community before the Civil War. His father and grandfather died when Everett was four years old. Mary was a teacher at an all-Black school in Charleston. In the summers, she worked in the phosphate mines on James Island. It was backbreaking work. Following the death of her husband in 1887, Mary moved her family off the peninsula and acquired several hundred acres of land known as "the Hillsborough Plantation." She co-founded the town of Maryville, one of the first black town governments in South Carolina. The town was later absorbed by the city of Charleston.

At the age of 13, Ernest Just enrolled at the all-Black South Carolina College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in the spring of 1896. His mother wanted him to become a teacher. He completed his coursework in three years and returned to Maryville in 1899, licensed to teach in the black public schools of South Carolina. After a fire burned his mother's school to the ground, she decided he should obtain more education and secured his enrollment at Kimball Hall (Union) Academy, in Meriden, New Hampshire. Just completed the four-year program in three years and graduated in 1903 with the highest grades in his class. He was the only African American student at Kimball. His mother was not alive to appreciate his accomplishment; she died his second year at Kimball. After the funeral, Just never returned to South Carolina.

Just's commitment to scholarship showed at an early age. In 1907, he was the only person to graduate magna cum laude from Dartmouth College -- with a degree in zoology, special honors in botany and history, and honors in sociology. In his freshman year at Dartmouth he received the highest marks in the entire freshmen class in Greek; Just was conferred as the Rufus Choate scholar for two years. He was the only African American among the 287 graduates. He was immediately offered a job as an English teacher at Howard University, an historically Black college in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he accepted an appointment as an instructor in biology, and eventually devoted all his time to teaching biology. In 1908, he was named head of Howard's newly-formed biology department -- in 1912, he became head of the Department of Zoology.

Soon after his arrival at Howard, Just was introduced to Dr. Frank R. Lillie, head of the biology department at the University of Chicago. Lillie, who was also chief of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, invited Just to spend the summer of 1909 as his research assistant at Woods Hole. It was an invitation that would change the path of Just's life.

Just received international acclaim for the work he completed during the summers from 1909 to 1930 at the Marine Biological Laboratory. While there he conducted thousands of experiments studying the fertilization of the marine mammal cell. His work on small water creatures was highly respected by European biologists. His first paper, "The Relation of the First Cleavage Plane to the Entrance Point of the Sperm," was published in 1912, gained him fame in the scientific community. The young scholar used a brilliant argument to prove that in the Nereis, a marine worm, the location of the sperm's entry point on the egg determines where cell division will occur within the egg. Using his research conducted at Wood's Hole, Just published his first book entitled, Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Mammals (1922). The book was a refutation of Jacque Loeb's theory of artificial parthenogenesis. During his 20 years of research at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Just published more than 50 scientific papers.

In 1915-16, Just took a leave of absence from Howard to enroll in an advanced academic program at the University of Chicago. That same year, Just, who was gaining a national reputation as an outstanding scientist, became the first recipient of the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his accomplishments as a "pure scientist." In 1916, Just received his Ph.D. in experimental embryology, with a thesis on the mechanics of fertilization, from the University of Chicago. He graduated magna cum laude.

Under Jim Crow segregation, Blacks were considered to be inferior to Whites -- socially, culturally, morally, physically, and intellectually. The Jim Crow racial hierarchy was based on these notions of White supremacy and Black inferiority. It was accepted as axiomatic that scientists were White; typically, the only Blacks in research laboratories were the janitors and the bodies used as cadavers in Whites-only medical schools. The presence of a supremely talented Black scientist contradicted the prevailing racial ideas, beliefs, and values. It is not surprising that Dr. Just was not offered an appointment at a "major" American university. At Howard University, Dr. Just had an extremely "heavy" teaching load, and the research facilities were poor. He had neither the time nor the resources to do the research he craved. Howard University received an $80,000 grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation that aided Black scholars, but there was a condition: the University had to lighten Dr. Just's teaching load. This created tension between the scientist and the campus administrators. Dr. Just was a modest man, and not confrontational; he, simply, wanted to conduct research and share his ideas with students. He did a lot of good work at Howard -- not the least of which was serving as a role model for Black undergraduates and faculty -- however; he was mismatched at that institution. In contemporary America he would be a highly prized researcher thriving at a major private or government laboratory or a distinguished teacher working at a prestigious institution, but pre-Civil Rights Movement America was not ready for Ernest Everett Just.

Under Jim Crow, Blacks, no matter how accomplished, were forced to work in segregated segments of this culture -- or leave. Dr. Just began to spend more in Europe. He was not a stranger to Europe. In 1920, Dr. Just was named a Julius Rosenwald Fellow in Biology of the National Research Council and an adjunct researcher at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology, Berlin-Dahlam, Germany, where several Nobel Prize winners conducted research. In 1929, he conducted experiments at a research center in Naples, Italy. Although Dr. Just remained employed by Howard University, he spent most of his time in Germany. In 1931, he met a German woman, Hedwid Schnetzler, whom he later married. Beginning in 1934, Dr. Just conducted most of his work in Italy and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He moved to France permanently in 1938.

He was an American without America. His race was his "master status," meaning, that status that we possess that trumps all other statuses. He was a brilliant scientist, a indefatigable researcher, and one of the brightest minds of his time, but in the United States he was unable to escape the stigmas that were associated with dark skin. In circles of enlightened Americans he was labeled "The Negro Scientist," in less-urbane settings, he was, simply, a negro, a darky, or worse. Except for the Marine Biological Laboratory, Dr. Just was unable to use the nation's best laboratories, and the funding for his work was almost always scarce and limited. He went to Europe because he believed the Europeans were more interested in his work than his race. It is an unfortunate testimony to Jim Crow segregation, that Dr. Just spent many of his productive years (1929-1940) living and researching on "foreign" soil. While in Europe in 1938 he published a number of papers and lectured on the topic of cell cytoplasm. In 1939, Dr. Just published his masterwork, The Biology of the Cell Surface, an important work that summarized his life's work on small marine mammals.

In 1940 Germany invaded France and Dr. Just was imprisoned briefly. He was rescued by the U.S. State Department and returned to America. This is irony: a Black scientist flees his home country because it treats him as a second class citizen, and then is rescued by the agents of that nation to be returned to the home where he is still, in the eyes of everyday Whites, seen as a cultural parasite -- socially, culturally, morally, physically, and intellectually an inferior. He had been sick for months, and he got sicker in prison. After his return to the United States, his condition worsened and he was never again well enough to conduct research. On October 27, 1941, Dr. Just died of pancreatic cancer.

January 2007 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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