By Sharon Bingaman RN
When thinking about a discussion of outstanding African Americans in this country, it is staggering and difficult to know where to begin. There are just that many and with names and accomplishments we are not aware of. We are all familiar with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., DuBois and Garvey but how many know about Dr. St Elmo Brady? Dr. Brady was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. Born in Kentucky in 1884, records tell us he was able to attend elementary and high school and graduate with honors. This achievement in itself was remarkable in that most of the areas where African Americans lived did not even have schools. In 1904 he began his college education at Fisk University studying chemistry under one of the early teachers of modern chemistry, Thomas W. Talley. Being accepted to Fisk says a lot about Dr. Brady’s dedication to study and his innate abilities. Now, the fact that a Black man should earn a Ph.D. is not the most remarkable idea here. What is remarkable is that at that time in this country, the south was living under Jim Crow laws. These laws segregated every aspect of Black life as White folks sought to regain “control” of the lives of African Americans they felt had been lost with the loss of the Civil War and the abolition of Slavery. And since Dr. Brady was born in 1884, he and his family would be trying to live their lives under this cruel and inhumane system. Laws were specific in their intent to keep African Americans from full participation in society in all areas of life including education, politics, economics and socially.
Of course, the major avenue chosen by Whites to try to keep African Americans “in their place” was by fear and intimidation. The intimidation took the form of lynchings, burnings and anything evil that could be thought of to keep Black people from doing what would get them ahead and in reaching their full potential. These acts were done within the laws Whites had set up to stack the deck against African Americans ability to make any progress. They were also done outside the law with the full knowledge of those in power. Segregation meant separate everything between Whites and African Americans and this was done to make Black people non-citizens, non-entities, and to make them appear as not worth anything, sub-human. In 1908, Dr. Brady graduated from Fisk University and was offered a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute. While at Tuskegee Institute he was taken under wing by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and learned what it meant to work for the good of others. In 1913 he took a leave from that position and entered University of Illinois for his Master’s degree. After earning his Master’s degree, he received a scholarship to continue his studies toward his Ph.D. Dr. Brady became the first African American admitted to the Chemistry honor society, Phi Lambda Upsilon and one of the first to be admitted to the science honor society, Sigma Xi. In 1916 he received his Ph.D. and returned to Tuskegee even though he was quoted as saying that his work, which had been done in a modern lab, could not be reproduced in a “school in the heat of Alabama, where I wouldn’t even have a Bunsen burner.” It was his idea of service to others that took him back to Tuskegee to be head of the division of science.
At a later date he was appointed head of the chemistry department at Howard University but spent most of his career at Fisk. St. Elmo Brady’s plan was to be able to give back to the people and institutions that had helped him. Toward that end he taught chemistry to hundreds of students and published papers on his own research. Research he did in conjunction with Dr. Samuel Massie, a former student he had mentored, focused on the synthesis of a halogen compound which was important because there was a lot of interest in halogen compounds being used in insecticides at that time. Dr. Massie was the first African American to join the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy and went on to work on the Manhattan Project of World War II. Dr. Brady’s name and the name of his teacher, Thomas Talley, were placed on the first modern chemistry building at a Black college, whose construction he had supervised. He also set up a lecture series which attracted outstanding chemists to Fisk and arranged a summer program with the University of Illinois that was open to faculties from all colleges and universities. So great was his desire to lift others that even after retiring from Fisk, he responded to a request from Tugaloo College to come and help them develop the chemistry department and recruit faculty. St. Elmo Brady’s courage and determination to live a life using his birth gifts inspired and encouraged many African Americans to consider a career in the sciences when others said they could not do it. We continue to spot light and honor the scholars in the Black community.