Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, in Washington, D.C. It is July 30, 2018. I have with me Ronald Mickens, and I’d like him to tell his full name and spell it.
Ronald Mickens: My full name is Ronald, spelled the usual way, R-o-n-a-l-d, Elbert, E-l-b-e-r-t, Mickens, M-i-c-k-e-n-s. I was born in Petersburg, Virginia, right down the road, February 7, 1943.
Kelly: You’ve had a very illustrious career. You have to tell us about your childhood, and how you got interested in science, and your journey to now.
Mickens: As I said, I grew up maybe 100 miles from here in Petersburg, Virginia. My grandfather, at about the age of three, began to teach me how to read and write and the elements of numbers. When I was four, he had me playing chess—not chess, but checkers and Pokeno, games with the old men. That was the standard, you played a lot of games. We didn’t have TV.
I’ve always been interested. He [Mickens’s grandfather, James Williamson], always in our discussions, always made me aware that things happen for a reason, and that reason is based upon scientific methodology. That you can understand the world. Not everything is scientific, but that aspect of the world that is scientific will provide satisfying, psychologically satisfying answers to many questions.
I had a traditional background of a poor person, either black or white. But my friends, though none of them ended up going to college, we would do things like run through the woods, examine flowers, plants. We would take lenses and set ants on fire, at least have them explode, and burn paper. Remember that this was in the ‘50s, and rocketry was going on. We would go down to the segregated movie theaters, and they always had these little shorts, about fifteen minutes each, of rockets taking off. We would pretend that we were flying in spaceships. Sometimes we would act this out like half an hour, take off and maneuvering and so forth.
My hometown also had one of the best high schools for any student in the State of Virginia. That was Peabody High School; it no longer exists. Almost all of the science and math teachers I had had at least a Master’s degree. The school made the assumption that not everyone should go to college, that not everyone is going to achieve at a high level. You do that when you have limited resources. When you have limited resources, you can’t make very generalized assumptions about what ought to be. You make assumptions based on what you can do and what you can achieve. When Peabody High desegregated, almost none of my science and math teachers went to the new integrated school, which was about five miles away from both of the previous schools. They got jobs at colleges and other places. Their belief was that the education from the new integrated school would be so watered down and so below the level at which we were taught at, that they didn’t want to have part of it.
One of the things that has interested me—in my older days, I might get into it—is, if you look at the educational system in Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia for blacks, it was at a very, very high level. I assume that all of you have seen “Hidden Figures.” That was not uncommon. In my high school, you took math every semester. You took physics, math, chemistry, biology. For example, in my math, we had regular geometry, we had spherical geometry. That’s why in the movie this lady knew all about it, because she had this in high school.
The program was broken up into three parts. There was a collegiate part that was called scientific collegiate. Everyone took the same thing, in terms of math and English. Then there was the regular high school. These were people who were going to be picking cotton and working in stores.
If you look at Petersburg, it’s centered about five miles from a very large military base, Fort Lee. Then there’s Hopewell, a big chemical place. Then we had a Negro insane asylum. Brown and Williamson was a major producer of cigarettes. I assume that what they did is they made cigarettes, and then later on put different names on them. In terms of jobs, one could get a job. The question is, what is it that you wanted eventually your life to be? The community as a whole had a great appreciation for intellectual activities, independently of whether you could get a job in that situation or not.
The classes that I took in high school — at least the science and math classes — many of them had no more than three students, at maximum maybe eight students. The school went on for the whole year. That’s the only way the teachers could make money. In summertime, they couldn’t get a job. I finished high school in three years. I wasn’t skipped a grade, I just finished. It was almost like a tri-semester. One of the things that I remember is that in our math class, we worked out every single problem in the book. We didn’t have these modern books. In modern books, they got dogs, they have Negros, they have females, they put everything. These were just strict math books. All of the classes were taught such that you had to go to the board and prove a theorem.
That’s why Peabody High was able to produce a lot of very good students, because they understood at a very fundamental level what mathematics was about at various levels. They understood, for example, at least beginnings of understanding of what scientific methodology was about, and so forth. The community and the school did not push the proposition that everyone was going to college. But there were, let’s say in the trade part of the school, jobs that allowed people to learn how to be a mason, or how to be a carpenter, or how to fix cars, and so forth.
To sum it up, I had a very good high school situation. I even took a course in home economics. Somebody said, “Why are you taking a course in home economics?” Two reasons. First of all, I wanted to learn how to cook. Second, that’s where the young ladies are. During that time, I was the only male in the class.
But in terms of the cooking, let me get back to that. I grew up in a family in which the men basically cooked during the week, and the women cooked on the weekend. We were taught how to cook, how to wash clothes. Every Saturday, we had to sweep the yards, we had to wax the floors. I don’t know whether you know anything about linoleum or not. We had to do all of that. Because, my grandparents would say to me, “You should never have to depend upon someone to do anything for you if you can do it. If you’re hungry, why would you tell someone to fix you something, when you can do it?”
Another interesting aspect of my life was that when I was ten years old, ten, eleven, I actually had three people employed, in my employment. I took over a paper route and I started out with about 100 and some papers, and then I gradually took over many others. It got to the point where I had more customers than I could take myself. I had a little wagon, a little red wagon. There was a family, I think they were from the Philippines. There was a father and he had two sons, and of course, a wife and daughters. I hired the father and the two sons to pick up the newspapers and deliver them, and I paid them a salary. I collected the money.
We also made a lot of money picking up copper wire. During those days, if you take newspapers, you’re going to get—if you have, let’s say 500 customers, you don’t get 500 [papers]. They come in bundles of 25, and they would leave off bundles. But they wrapped them in copper wire. The other paper boys would cut the copper wire and throw it away. I had my employees go around two or three hours after the papers were delivered to all these different sites, and pick up the copper wire.
Copper was selling for about 19, 20 cents a pound. You would get 100 pounds of copper, you can make some money that way. I shared all these profits with my employees, because in a real sense, they were doing the hard work. I was just getting the money in. We did what we could do. Now, the people knew me, they would pay me, but they would probably not have paid them.
That was essentially my stay in Petersburg, Virginia. But very soon, I knew that I had to get the hell out of Petersburg. It was just too small. When I finished from high school, I won all these various awards. But I had not really applied to any college. We graduated in June.
One day, I was walking by the high school. The college counselor called me in and said, “What are you doing?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
My father wanted me to go into the military. You know, “The Mickens family has a reputation for shooting people, so you might as well carry on the tradition within the context of the government and do it legally.” There are a lot of Mickens, trust me. I have over 200 first cousins.
She said, “There is this place that I went to, Fisk University.” I had never heard of Fisk, F-i-s-k, in Nashville, Tennessee. She said, “They have a summer program.” Now, remember, in 1960, the government was setting up all those summer programs, because the Russians had sent up Sputnik and all of this.
I went there, and the person who ran the program gave us a standardized test. I made the highest score. Actually, it’s interesting, because in the math portion, I made something like 99 percentile when I got there. Then they gave us the same test at the end, and I made like 92 percentile. I told them, “This course has had a negative impact on me! I come out of here knowing less stuff when I came in!”
I stayed at Fisk, and I graduated from Fisk. That was during a time of a lot of civil unrest in places like Nashville. I decided, for a variety of personal reasons, to stay in Nashville, and I went to Vanderbilt University. Four years later, forced by my advisor, 1968, I got my PhD.
Remember, there was the Vietnam War that was going on, there was a whole bunch of stuff. I just put it off. I kept putting it off. He says, “Look,” he says, “You have one month to decide.” I had also gotten a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship to MIT, which I was going to turn down. So, he says, “You either leave, or I’m going to give up on you.”
I said, “Okay.” I asked him, “How long should it take to write a dissertation?”
He said, “How much time you got?”
I said, “One week.”
He said, “Okay.” I wrote my dissertation, which wasn’t hard to do, because I had published like twelve papers before. Those were the days where people didn’t worry about—at the universities, they bring out these little rulers. “You are 1/10th of one millimeter above the margin,” all that crap.
Kelly: Was it at Fisk or in your high school that you got interested in physics? Where did your love of physics come from?
Mickens: I don’t consider myself a physicist. I work on whatever I feel like I’m interested in. When I was at Fisk, I started out formally as a math major and that got boring. Chemistry. Fisk had a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, which means that if you’re going to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa, they only give it for a BA degree. That meant that if I took 50 hours in science, I had to take, what is it, 18 hours in some other field. They call it “cancellation.” I was able to take economics and history and all this other stuff.
To me, there’s a single world, and you just ask different questions to understand different aspects of it. If you looked at my vitae, you’ve seen that I’ve done a whole bunch of different things. I don’t identify with any particular field. I go to engineering meetings and I go to biology meetings. I’ve been at history of science meetings, I’ve been to socio. Whatever is of interest to me.
Kelly: You’ve got great curiosity.
Mickens: Yes, that’s what it is, curiosity. You have to be curious. Of course, it helps to be a little bright, too. Actually, it helps a lot.
As I said, from my days back in Petersburg interacting with my grandfather, his whole philosophy was, “It’s just one world, and you can learn about large aspects of it. Not everything is scientific, but those aspects that are scientific, you should know, and at least in general, how to go about answering questions that are sort of related to those issues.”
Kelly: Was your grandfather a scientist?
Mickens: He was an educated person. I don’t know the great details. We’re talking about the latter part of the ‘40s and ‘50s. He was an educated person, and I think he taught at one time at what was then called Virginia Normal, Virginia State Normal School, which is now Virginia State College— no, now it’s Virginia State University.
He had a beautiful handwriting—think Declaration of Independence, I think he wrote that. [Laughter] Anyway, so when people died, he would write the notices, and when people wanted to write letters. But by the time that I got to know him, he was an old man. Whatever he did, he had retired. In those days, people did everything; you were a carpenter, a plumber.
I do know that essentially up until the time I went to college, most of the food we grew ourselves or raised ourselves. We had corn, we had pole beans, we had butter beans, we had peach tree, pear tree. There’s nothing like—you see this big juicy peach, I mean, it’s really good-looking. You bite it and you’re savoring the taste, and then you see half of this little worm coming out! “That’s all right, let me try the other piece, that was good.”
I didn’t really realize that I was poor, from the point of view of material things, until I got to college. Because we had everything in terms of food, except for meats. Well, we raised chickens, but I mean, other things.
When I got to college, I remember the first time I went into the bathroom, and I saw this little tiny room that had a little curtain. I said, “What the hell is that?” It was a shower. I’d never taken a shower before. How am I supposed to know what a shower looks like? I said, “Okay, let us put the scientific methodology here.” I just waited around and got up early one morning, went in there, went into the toilet stool. “All right, let’s see what people do with it.” Well, it’s true. You can’t have knowledge of something if you’ve never experienced it.
But I would say overall, my childhood was relatively good. I don’t have any major regrets one way or the other.
Kelly: You sound like you were an entrepreneur and very resourceful and very bright and very curious. That combination served you well.
Mickens: Sure. I had teachers who, from their perspective, thought that I was good and that I should do things. I remember, it must have been like middle school—we didn’t ever have cars, so walking five miles to see your girlfriend, that’s no big thing. I mean, it could be worse, it could be ten miles. You’d probably have to take Greyhound.
Many of the black schools had—the faculty sent their children to these schools [private training schools], grade schools, rather than send them out with the public schools. I guess they didn’t want to mix with people in public schools, probably a good idea. I didn’t realize this until after the fact—every time I would go over there, they would give me an IQ test, or tests of that sort. Then I later discovered that there were people who were doing research on the relative distribution of IQ among blacks. They wanted to see what this distribution looked like. There were a lot of things that happened, except later in life, I didn’t really know what was going on.
But, a place like Petersburg was very interesting in terms of a Southern city, at least during those times. First of all, there were plenty of “jobs.” As I said, you had Fort Lee, you had the Firestone, the Negro insane asylum, Brown and Williams. Getting a job was not a problem. Racism has a different affect when people have jobs that are relatively good-paying.
The other thing is that if you look historically at Virginia, there was a big difference between the lives of blacks who lived along the coast, and I’m going to include Petersburg in there, versus those who lived further inland. Many of the enslaved people who lived in places like Norfolk and others, they had their own houses. They worked for someone and gave maybe 95% of their wages to them. But they weren’t on a farm.
In fact, I think there was some strong evidence that the first black person to be arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law was a relative, a very, very distant relative of mine. I was at a lecture, and this person who was talking about him—that law was passed around 1850, and he got on a boat and went up to Boston. Then he was immediately arrested and then the town blacks freed him, and he went up to Canada.
This lady kept saying “Mickens.” I said, “Hell, I’m Mickens. I’ve never heard of this person.” Well, he was illiterate, he couldn’t read or write. It was spelled phonetically, it was M-i-k-k-i-n-s.
I went back and looked at the records. Air distance, he’s about 40 miles from where I am. I think that we were related to each other. But he went up to Canada, married and disappeared.
I had fun in Petersburg, but I was glad to get out.
Kelly: How did you happen to meet J. Ernest Wilkins?
Mickens: I always had a great interest in the history of science, because scientific problems don’t just pop up. Scientific problems have a genealogy to them. Even now, I tell my students, “In order to understand any subject, you need to understand the history of it. Why certain problems that you now work on? Why do people think they’re important? Who are the people who led to that genesis? What did they do about it, and so forth?”
In 1960—I think this is correct, there was a book, I think it was either 1960 or 1970—there was a book published called Black Mathematicians. He was listed in there. I went through and looked at a large number of the pictures and the names and their papers. Several of them I know.
Virginia contains a relatively large number of historically black schools. You got Virginia State, you have Norfolk. Actually, Norfolk State was a branch of Virginia State that broke off and became separate. You have Hampton. Then there are schools over in Richmond, Virginia. That just fit. I looked through, and I saw his name. He was just one of many people that I become interested in learning more about.
I become very good friends later on—and I’ll get to Wilkins in a minute—to a fellow by the name of Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid, who as it turned out was born in Virginia. World-class mathematician. The reason why he had that hyphenated name is that he married an Indian. They accepted him into that very high class in the Indian society of mathematicians. He knew all of the things that astrophysicist, the fellow up there, [Subrahmanyan] Chandrasekhar at Chicago. They were friends of his.
But the point I’m trying to make is that I saw these names in this book, Wilkins name, and I just was, “What are they doing now?”
I met Wilkins, who was a very interesting person. First of all, he said very little about himself, but he was strictly logical. I knew two of his three wives. For example, she would tell me, “We went to a restaurant the other night, and the waitress added us up and she was off one penny. Then J. Ernest pointed this out to her!”
But he was very kind, very low-key. That whole family clearly—I don’t know whether you’ve seen pictures of him, or met him in person. But that family could have clearly passed [as white] if they wished. But none of them did.
A good history of that family was written by his brother’s daughter. It’s called Damn Near White. If you want the full title of that, her name was Carolyn, C-a-r-o-l-y-n, Marie Wilkins, and you can get it. It’s called Damn Near White: An African-American Family’s Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success. It’s very interesting.
J.’s first name—we called him J—that J doesn’t stand for anything. Now, if you read many of the articles about him, they’ll say it’s Julius or it’s James. That’s his brothers’ names. He had two brothers. But the J, he was a junior. That comes from the fact that his grandfather did something, for which that particular branch of the family did not want to give the descendants the name. That’s why they just put “J.”
We went to lunch twice a month, J. and two or three other faculty members, a person from Georgia Tech and one of the female faculty members in math. We would discuss a variety of topics, not necessarily just math topics, but generally, topics involving science.
For example, let’s suppose that you had life on a planet that was ten times as massive as the earth. What would it look like, assuming that the usual laws of physiology apply and everything? Well, you know, there’s certain things that you clearly can conclude. First of all, those beings would probably be flat, because of the gravity. The life forms would probably have bilateral symmetry, because that’s the symmetry that you can have for which you can get depth perception. We’d talk about things like that.
He would always jump on me, and he would say, “Mickens, your argument is not mathematically rigorous.”
What I would say is, “J. Ernest, but it’s right!”
One other thing that I found interesting: up until five years ago when I started teaching undergraduates, I taught a course in mathematical physics for about thirty years. In that course, I’d just go in every day, I never knew what the topic was, I’d just talk about what I felt like. Kids don’t know that I’m not—well, I’m prepared. But he would stand outside the door oftentimes, and he would stand just out of my sight. Oftentimes in this course I would bring up research problems that I’m working on. Then he’d come back maybe two weeks later, and he’d have a notebook pad. I still have those things, copies of them that he gave to me, of thirty pages. I said, “J., man, this stuff is good, thirty-some pages. But you see, I have all that on one page.”
Yeah, he was gentle. He was married three times. I never met the first wife, because she had died. The second and third wives were almost twins of each other. He liked a certain kind of woman. They certainly had to be well-educated. His wives were really good people. I enjoyed meeting both of them.
I would see him at meetings. But it was really after he went to Howard University, after he retired and went to Howard University, that’s when he was elected President of, I think, the American Nuclear Society, that year. Then after that, we became friends to the extent we would just talk and discuss issues in math and other kinds of things.
Kelly: Did he ever talk about his work on the Manhattan Project?
Mickens: You have to understand that for people of his status, and I’m talking about in the context of the black community, you did not complain. What you did is if you had issues, you resolved them. They may not be resolved to your satisfaction, but you resolved them.
I read a lot of things that people have written on him, that people have said that he’d said. I just don’t believe it. Because he was not that kind of a person, and that was not what people of his— I’m going to put it this way—of his class and his education. His mother was a University of Chicago graduate. His father was a University of Chicago grad, and I think he had one or two of his brothers that went there. There were just certain ways of how you presented yourself and what you thought about things that you never said in a public manner to other people.
One of the advantages of reading history is that you find that human beings are son-of-a-bitches. I’ll put it that way. You read the history of science, this is just the normal stuff that you tack onto a social thing. But scientists don’t treat each other that well.
I’m almost certain this is true—there was a very famous scientist who eventually won the Nobel Prize, and he was involved in a large experiment. They found him sabotaging an experiment at a laboratory by urinating on the equipment. They gave him a year’s leave. When you have an understanding of the history of how these subjects evolve, it gives you pause. “Okay. Well, I don’t like the way people are treating me. But on the other hand, could be worse. Could be better, too, but it could be worse.”
People like Wilkins, their way to resolve issues involving race was to perform at a very high level. They were very careful. They had dress codes. Except for a few photos that I have of him, almost always when you see Wilkins, he had a shirt and tie on. You had to be able to speak well. If you are a scientist or a mathematician, you had to be top. You had to be a top person. You just couldn’t go out and say anything you wanted, because it was not so much that you were representing a race, you were representing yourself, and you had high standards.
Kelly: Do you want to explain, for people who aren’t familiar with what he did during his years on the Manhattan Project, or what other people said about what he did?
Mickens: In terms of our discussion and the Manhattan Project, many of the people who worked on the Manhattan Project, even now—and if I get a chance I’ll talk about Chuck [Charles Stewart]—they would not talk about it. Like, Chuck, for example, wouldn’t talk about how many times he jumped out of a plane. He said, “It’s a government secret.” Many of them did not talk directly about their work.
But he [Wilkins] did talk about the fact that he would not go to any place that would put restrictions on where he lived, who he lived with, and the kinds of amenities that he had grown accustomed to in places like Chicago.
There was no possibility that he would ever go to Oak Ridge under the conditions in which blacks had to live. If you look at most of the other black scientists of that time, almost all of them were in northern cities. There was a lot of discrimination stuff there, too, but they were at Columbia, or they were in Chicago, or maybe Cleveland. I also knew quite a few people who worked, in particular—has that name come up? Warren Henry worked at MIT, the Rad Lab. He was one of their scientists there. He got a PhD from University of Chicago in physical chemistry.
In fact, it’s interesting. J. was the baby, when J. was there [at University in Chicago], J. was a teenager. There were these other black people who eventually got PhDs in chemistry. What they said about J. was that he was very fun-loving, because he was still a teenager. He was also discovering himself, I would guess, because he was essentially taught at home and then at thirteen he went to the University of Chicago. There are lots of stories.
There were three people in particular who were there. There was J. There was Warren Henry who got a PhD, and Warren Henry became a very eminent chemist. He did work involving plutonium, I think, and he ended up at Naval Research Laboratory. Then he went to Howard and became a professor. Who was the third person? Oh, Henry McBay. Yeah, you might have heard of his wife, Shirley McBay.
The three of them were there [at UChicago] at the same time, and you had a span in ages of probably fifteen, twenty years. Because a lot of the other black scientists, what they did is when they got an undergraduate degree, they would go teach, or maybe become a principal somewhere. The northern schools would do the following. They would say, “We will admit you. But you have to spend at least a year here, just so we can find out what you can do.”
Secondly, many of them couldn’t afford to spend a year there. They needed jobs, they had family. So oftentimes, they would just go during the summer. Within the context of this group of people, if you were offered a research fellowship, then that was something major. You knew you never were going to get a TA, for the obvious reason. Because, if you had a TA, there might be some southern cracker there who would write back to their father—I hope you folks aren’t offended by the word “cracker”—and that happened sometimes. That’s why they never offered these people TAs. They either offered them nothing, or they gave them a research scholarship.
But it was very close-knit. So that those three people, J., Warren Henry and McBay, I got them together after fifty, sixty years. At that time, J. was teaching at Clark Atlanta University and doing research. Henry McBay was at Morehouse College, and we eventually brought him over. The American Association for the Advancement of Science was having a meeting, and I told Warren Henry to come down. So that after forty, fifty, sixty years, all three of them together. Now, they had seen each other pair-wise, but not all together. I have photos of that.
It was just interesting seeing them together and talking. As I said, during that time, blacks who wanted to go into science, and in particular who wanted to make a high wage, you had to speak a certain way, you had to dress a certain way, you had to interact with people a certain way. It’s a time that’s no longer with us.
Getting back to your direct question: he never talked in detail about what he worked on. I knew it was something involving nuclear physics. Several of his papers—I have a copy of his vitae. Do you have a copy of that? Because I can send you a copy if you want it.
Kelly: That would be good.
Mickens: Okay. Many of those papers have been declassified, but I think there are some—the classification system is strange. But it involved reactions, neutrons and gamma rays. But we never particularly talked about that, because generally, it’s not so much that I would not understand the details of it, it just was not of particular concern within the context of the discussion.
I wouldn’t say he did not want to talk about the discrimination and things of that sort, because he just felt that it was—I think I’m right about this—that it was over with, that there’s nothing to discuss about it. He wasn’t going to Oak Ridge [during the Manhattan Project], and he probably wasn’t going to—what’s the place out in Washington State?
Mickens: Hanford, he wasn’t going there, because they were a little better than Oak Ridge, but not much better. Los Alamos had a whole different set of things that they wanted.
After graduating and going to Tuskegee, he spent time with [Eugene] Wigner and I think there are three effects that are named after he and Wigner. One of them, I have it written here somewhere—well, there’s something like the Wilkins effect, the Wilkins-Wigner effect and the Wigner-Wilkins effect. As you know, later on, he became very involved with nuclear physics directly.
But his earlier jobs after the Manhattan Project at the Institution for Advanced Study were in optics. He spent a good portion of his life. In fact, all of his PhDs—he has about fourteen people who got PhDs under him, might be ten—but all of those deal with topics in optics. I don’t think he’s ever had a student who did any work in nuclear physics directly.
Oh, one other thing about Oak Ridge. I don’t think that his family, though he was an adult, I don’t think his family would have approved of him going to a place like Oak Ridge. There were just certain things that people of their stature did not allow themselves or their relatives or friends to do.
Kelly: Well, it was humiliating.
Mickens: Yes, yes. You should read the book by Carolyn on Damn Near White. Because his father was the first sort of cabinet appointee as a black person. It was under Eisenhower. I won’t tell the whole story, but he ended up dying. Probably he had a heart attack because there was a position that he was almost certain that he was going to get, and the politics moved him out.
Kelly: Was he an academic?
Mickens: No, he was a lawyer. But he spent a lot of time early during the war appointed to government panels, and things of that sort. I assume that he made his money being a lawyer.
Kelly: You’ve written a lot about African Americans in science.
Kelly: Tell us about some of them, or the trends you’ve seen.
Mickens: There are actually more [African American scientists] out there than—I mean, I think that if you see the lists out there, the various official lists probably contain about 50% of those that are out there.
I’ll give you one example. There was this young lady, I’d heard about her before, but I looked her up again. Her name is Carolyn Beatrice Parker. She was Fisk grad. She finished in 1938, and she got two Master’s, ’41 from the University of Michigan, and ’51 from MIT. She worked in Cleveland. I don’t remember the organization, but she worked on—not plutonium, polonium.
Mickens: Polonium, yes, yes. She died at 47 years old. My understanding is that she was to take her [Ph.D.] oral [exams at MIT], and died before—either died or became extremely sick. There’s a lot of information on her, relatively speaking. But if you don’t see a picture of her, you would never assume that she’s black. In fact, most people assume that she’s not black, just because she’s working on those things.
If you take, for example, the list of scientists who worked mainly in the northern cities associated with the Manhattan Project, very few people know about them, outside of very specialized people like you and others. Usually, the people who ended up at some point going to one of the historically black schools become public knowledge. But otherwise, they don’t become public knowledge.
My interest has always been, “How within the context of one’s individual environment, how do you, how do you decide that you want to be creative? How do you decide that you’re going to perform at a very high level, and still deal with these other problems?” Plus, I have just the general interest in, “Why is it that some people are more creative than others?” Not everybody is. However you define creativity, not everyone is creative. That’s not a moral judgment, that’s just a statement of fact.
As I got off into the history of science in general, I felt more and more of these people who were sort of in the background. They weren’t hidden, they just weren’t talked about. You look at people like—well, take the nineteenth century. Not a scientist, but someone like Granville Woods, out there doing things, and made significant contributions.
Again, if you go back to just standard scientists, people like [Michael] Faraday, people who had these very poor backgrounds who came up through circumstances and luck and everything else became very famous. That’s why I try to get my students to read history, to try to understand that the social setting in which you find yourself may or may not have an impact on you to a large extent.
I went to Vanderbilt University in 1964. There were essentially no [African-American] undergraduate students there. I never had a problem. But I also had an attitude, too. If people think that they can do things to you and get away with it, they will do it. So you make it clear, “You’re not going to be able to do that.” But the young kids who came on after me had lots of problems; psychologically they weren’t prepared.
There was one young lady I met. There was a project at Vanderbilt University where they’re interviewing graduates, mainly undergraduates. Her father, I think, was a professor at Tennessee State, she says, “Oh, when I got there, I thought all these problems had been solved.” You’re going into a situation like that, 1964, you know? There is some justification in saying that a little violence will help you. If people—unless they have overwhelming firepower—if it’s known that there’s going to be some response to what you say.
Another thing is that you also have to not be upset by everything that someone says to you. Because you’re not going to get anything done doing that way. When I went to Vandy, my major professor was chair of the physics department, Wendell Holliday. A whole bunch of civil rights things going on, SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was up there. I was involved in a whole lot of things. He just says, “Do physics.”
That’s what I did. I had a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, I had a Danforth fellowship, so I was okay. I published about eleven, twelve papers before I left. He had confidence that I could do physics, and so that was it. He probably was the best possible advisor, that a person could have.
I kept up with the family. When he died, and that was about twelve years ago, I was the only one of his previous students that they asked to speak at his funeral. His wife, Virginia, died this year, and I was invited there. We used to go in there, you know, she lived in a nursing home. It was like a fancy hotel. They was paying like $8,000 a month, which is a lot of money in Nashville. She had four rooms. They had a waterfall. It was really nice. Think of a hotel, about four or five [hundred] different units, five or six stories high. They had two restaurants, they had bars. She had taken me in there and she said, “Hey, everybody, I want to introduce you to my son.” I look around, and I said, “Now, who is she talking about? Not me!”
Wendell was a very good scientist, and he grew up in Tennessee. Unless you’ve grown up in the south—you can have some very good relationships. This whole thing about southerners all being crazy—well, only about 98% [laughter]. Wendell was a down-home fellow. He liked to fish, and he was chair [of the Physics Department] and then he became dean of the graduate school, then provost, and then president.
Vandy has a structure where the president is sort of like the provost. They have a chancellor, and the chancellor just goes raise money. When he retired from the president’s office, he’d tell me, he said, “I want to see if I can still do physics.” He took off a year, and he went to MIT. Then he came back, and he says, “Nope.” He said, “It’s just gone too far.” He did what a lot of people do when you get old in the sciences: you become a historian, you become a philosopher of science. He spent a lot of time worrying about the various interpretations of quantum mechanics.
I have another friend, a black fellow [James King, Ph.D. in Chemistry, 1958-1959] who went out to Caltech. I’ll tell you about it, because his story is interesting. “Mickens,” he says, “Far too many people say, ‘No one understands quantum mechanics.’”
I said, “But that depends on what you mean by ‘understanding.’ It’s a psychological issue. It’s not a physical issue, it’s a psychological issue.” I said, “When you say that you have seen an atom, you mean you looked at an atom?”
No. There’s a whole set of interpretations that you put on it. Seeing evolves depending upon the space, scale and other things. I said, “Look, 100 years from now, these issues, like a particle being in two places at one time [will not be an important issue, if considered at all],” I said, “First of all, it’s not in two places at one time.”
I’ll give you an example. Suppose every day, you plot how you get over here. Now, there are probably lots of ways you can get here. Let’s say on day one, you went this way. You plot those, so you’re going to get some peaks. There are some ways that are more probable. Well, if you plot that, think of it as a waveform. There’s a peak here and a peak there. It doesn’t mean that on any given day, you were here and there. It means that if you were to guess which way you would go, this is more probable than the other.
But my friend that went to Cal, who eventually became associate director for Science and Engineering at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was a graduate student at—I mean, was an undergraduate at Morehouse College. McBay had over fifty students who went on to get PhDs in chemistry and other fields. McBay would say, “You have to go to the best possible school.” He sent students to Berkeley, to Caltech, to University of Chicago. He says, “The only way that you can prove yourself is go to the [best] possible school there is.”
When Jim wrote to Caltech—and I have a copy of the letter—this is the essence of the letter. [They wrote to him], “Dear So-and-So, we have no idea what the hell Morehouse College is.” But they didn’t put the “hellfire” in. “We have no way of measuring your abilities. If you wish to come, we would suggest that you bring enough money for a round-trip ticket.” That’s roughly what the letter said.
If you can decide to come, they will give you a one-year probationary period. But it’s funny when you read it, and you look at it. But obviously, what you have to do is you have to look back. The letter is not as glaring as it seems, if you go back to the time when it was written. They didn’t say he couldn’t come, and they were probably honest when they said they had never heard of Morehouse. What would you do under those circumstances, if you’re traditionally getting students from one kind of background, and you see another student?
He said that letter made him—with great determination, he was going there and succeeding. And that’s what he did, he got a PhD, I think four or five years later. He ended up being associate director for Science and Engineering at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But these are the kinds of stories that you really don’t hear people talk about.
Getting back to the University of Chicago. I was at an event, and I won’t say this person’s name, though. It was someone who was a dean at the University of Chicago, dean of the school, I think they call it mathematics and natural science, whatever they call it. I was telling him about J., I was telling him about Warren Henry, I was telling him about was a whole bunch of other people. He had never heard of these people. Since I’d written on some of them, I sent him a whole batch of stuff back.
Now, the thing that pissed me off was the following. We were at an event about a year later. He comes up and says, “Oh, yes, we take care of all of our people.” He made it sound as if he knew about this all the time.
Kelly: How many people were there at the University of Chicago who were black at the time that Wilkins was there?
Mickens: If you look at the period, the United States had decided back in the 1930s that there was going to be a war, and that they needed scientific personnel. If you look at the number of blacks who got degrees in the 1930s, particularly after 1935, there’s a peak there. There’s a fellow who was at the University of Wisconsin, Hubert Mack Thaxton, that almost no one knows about. He wrote papers with Blatt, B-l-a-t-t, nuclear.
At Chicago, I know that probably at one time they had at least five or six graduate students working on PhDs. But suppose you’re walking across campus and you see somebody like J. Ernest, you’d never think that he was a minority. I tell people, I’m not in favor of, “This is the first black to do that,” because you don’t know that. I know that not to be true. Because I know at Vanderbilt University, there were blacks getting degrees over there [in the early and middle of the 20th century] if they were fair-skinned enough.
If you look in the south, we have these historically black state schools. Many times, the president of those black schools were the offspring of some big, powerful person in the state. Their father got them these positions. There’s a statue—and I won’t make the name—in Atlanta, downtown of somebody, and then there’s a black who has that same name. They look exactly the same. That was quite common.
Within the context of my family, I have a relative who was born back in the nineteenth century, and her mother had several children from the master. When she was about fourteen years old, she was fair enough—because when I met her, she had long pretty hair, blonde hair, blue eyes—that her father wanted her to live with her, because she could pass [as white]. That was quite common. I’m trying not to get into too many details. But she worked for a very powerful black person, and it turned out that they didn’t let her go back.
If you’ve heard of Elmer Imes, Elmer Imes was the second black to get a PhD in physics in 1918. A Fisk graduate. He was married to Nella Larsen, of the Harlem Renaissance fame. A lot of people did not connect it, because it was only after he died—all of her novels are under Nella Larsen—it was only after he died that she changed her name back. No one could find her, and she was living right around the corner there. She changed her name. Her father was Jamaican—no, from the Virgin Isles. Her mother was from Copenhagen, Denmark.
When the father left them, I’m not sure, but I guess when they were young kids. When the mother remarried, she decided that Nella was not fair-skinned enough to live with them, because the second husband was going to move out to California. She told Nella that she’d had to leave the family.
Now, the Imes family, that is one of the most educated families in the history of the United States and almost no one knows about them.
Kelly: Well, tell us about it.
Mickens: Imes was a guy who did his undergraduate work at Fisk. His mother and father met at Oberlin. Both of them got degrees from—I guess they had a department or a school of theology. His father made the decision to come south to help the uneducated blacks, mainly through religion, and so he set up various schools.
Imes did his work under [Harrison McAllister Randall], who had studied in Germany, and [Imes] did a very, very famous dissertation. I’ve looked at all the European journals from about 1918 up until 1940. Do you know what a citation classic is? A citation classic is something that’s so well-known and cited so many times. Almost no one knew that he was black.
I was able to meet one of his students. She told me that she would—when I say student, she was a work student—that she would get these letters from people in Europe and everything, they would write to him for papers or for advice on various research topics. But she said one time, I think it was Oklahoma—it’s in one of my books—she was sitting in the airport and she met a professor who was also an infrared spectroscopist, and that’s what he was in. They were talking, and he said, “I never knew that Imes was colored.” He had this international reputation, where most of the people outside of this country never knew that he was a black person.
But, again, that family, they were very class and caste-oriented. His mother and father had degrees. He had a brother who eventually got a PhD in theology and he pastored a church, oftentimes with a majority of Caucasians parishioners up north. That brother was for one year a dean of the chapel at Fisk. He had another brother who was in industry, and made a lot of money that way.
They could pass for white, but they chose not to. The origin of this modern family, back in the nineteenth century was in Pennsylvania. That group eventually split into a white group and a black group. The white group was primarily those who could pass for white. This was quite common.
Two or three years ago, I saw a documentary that was based on Creoles down in New Orleans. There was one photo, where there must have been like fourteen kids. My color all the way up to your color. What they would tell them is, “Look, if you can pass, pass. This is going to be the last meeting. If you see me, do not speak to me, and I will not speak to you.”
That happened a lot. Then there were other situations. I mean, some of the people just decided, “I don’t care. I’m just, I’m black.”
But, these were very complicated things. It has strange kinds of interaction with people who do science, because there is a psychological toll if you try to do that kind of thing. One thing about it, whether you’re a male or female, you’re probably not going to have kids, because if you got married, it would be someone who was white, and you probably lied to them about your genealogy. Oftentimes, the lies of genealogy show up when you have kids.
You see now why a lot of people like J. Ernest and people of his generation, they were very proudly black, even though they didn’t have to do that. Because they felt as if, “It is demeaning to deny my ancestors.” They strove to do the best that they could to outperform people.
J. Ernest got his PhD at the age of nineteen. But the belief was that what you do is, you perform at a very, very high level. If you read a lot of the writings, particularly some of the people during the Harlem Renaissance, there were people, people like [W. E. B.] DuBois and I’m sure the Wilkins families and others, who believed they were actually creating a new group of people that were in some sense intellectually and physically better than both whites and blacks.
It’s a very complicated situation. Wilkins did not talk very much about it. He wanted to be evaluated on what he did. He would never allow himself to be put in a situation that would be overtly humiliating.
Kelly: After the Manhattan Project, when you were starting your own career in physics, had the times changed? Was this still a big issue, as someone who was black trying to make it in physics?
Mickens: I left Vanderbilt and I went to MIT, to the Center for Theoretical Physics. I fooled around there, and I use that word “fooled,” for about ten years. You know how you do something and then later on you decide, “I must have been crazy to do that?” It’s like trying to do nuclear physics when you don’t have a reactor or something. But it was fun. I published probably thirty papers [heavily related to] mathematics, but of total nonsense to [real physics]. It was right, and all that.
My main experience throughout the years has been, it has given the opportunity to just meet a lot of interesting people of all groups from all around the world. What you find is, whatever problem you think you have, it’s not unique. In the book of uniqueness, it’s blank. That what you face is what lots of other people—I mean, look at Madame [Marie] Curie. After her [Pierre] husband was run over by the horse carriage and everything, and then she had this relationship with [Paul Langevin].
I tell my students, “Read about the history, and you will find you’re not [unique]. I’m not justifying that people should treat you a certain way. But you’re not unique, you’re not the only one. It’s not just because you are black or that you’re white or other. This is just the way human beings treat each other.”
One of the reasons why I’m here [today] is that the American Association of Physics Teachers is meeting here in town. I’m giving a talk tomorrow morning, before I leave tomorrow afternoon, on physics training and mentoring at Fisk University. I’m going back to the nineteenth century, the founding of Fisk.
Imes went there and founded the department in the ‘20s. The fact that students were almost immediately put into the laboratories—I know when I went there as a freshman, they had all this big equipment and all this stuff. They said, “There’s a book. Talk to some other students. We’ll kill you if you mess up.”
Many of the younger kids don’t have any experience with reality. What you see on TV, what you see in these little video stuff, is not necessarily reality. It’s like the comic book, the little animal runs out across the cliff, and then discovers the law of gravity. But they violated all these laws before they get there.
That’s why I’m here, and I decided that while I’m here, that I would just come by and be interviewed.
Alexandra Levy: If you could also say what university you’re affiliated with?
Mickens: Oh, I’m currently at Clark Atlanta University located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Levy: How long have you been there?
Mickens: Thirty-five years, which is no big thing to me. Every five years, they give you a damn clock. I got this one and I said, “You know, I’m tired of clocks. That noise is driving me crazy.” I said, “I’ll take a mug.” But I said, “Look, why are you giving me this thing for thirty-five years? There are two things I didn’t do. I didn’t leave, and I didn’t die. Right? And I get a clock for that?” I said, “Next time, I’m going to leave.” [Laughter]
Atlanta University, the name Clark Atlanta, there were two separate schools, Atlanta University for most of its lifetime was a graduate school. It had no undergraduates. The center there that included Morehouse, Morris Brown, Clark College, there’s a school of religion there. What else, Morehouse Medical School used to belong to it, but they’ve gotten out of it. It’s a consortium.
When I came in 1982, there were often PhDs in biology and chemistry and other fields. But the accreditation agency said, “How can you have a graduate program in the sciences without a physics department?” I set up the physics department.
Levy: Do you want to talk about Chuck Stewart?
Mickens: About two years ago, one of my friends at Clark Atlanta University mentioned a friend of hers who had a father-in-law who was a photographer. I had never heard of him, but as it turned out, he was a very famous photographer. He’s known as a jazz photographer, and his works are in the Smithsonian, lots of it. He had taken pictures of people like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. It kind of upset him that people only looked at him as one type.
But I discovered through the daughter-in-law that during the Korean War, he was drafted into the Korean War as a photographer for the Army, and that one of his assignments when he was stationed in the United States was to take photos of atomic weapons when they were going off. He went up in airplanes and he took photos from the ground. This is sort of a composite [photograph of him with an atomic cloud in the background] here. That’s Chuck right there.
This article appeared, whatever that means, in a magazine, New World, I think, New World. New World was created by a black man who was a communist. He was very heavily involved in all kinds of civil rights activities back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s. He wanted to do a spread on—it’s slipping my mind—the black singer.
Levy: Paul Robeson?
Mickens: Paul Robeson, right. He was told by the government, “If you do that, we’re going to shut the magazine down.” I don’t know whether it was in that issue, I have not been able to get the full issue. But I believe that the magazine—it only lasted from about ’47 to about ’52 or ’53, yeah. The purpose of that magazine was to highlight blacks who had made achievements in various fields, the musical industry, literature, and so forth.
But Chuck was a very interesting person. He was very security-conscious, probably more, so he wouldn’t talk directly about things like, “How many weapons test did you see, and how far away were you from them?” He was a soldier in the sense that he said, “Look, I had a job. They told me to do this, I did it. I didn’t ask them any questions and they didn’t ask me any questions, except, ‘Hand over the film.’”
He was saying that the first time he went up, he got in the airplane. He had a parachute on, but he said he thought that he was going to be leaning out the window or going [to look] through the window taking photos. They got up to a certain altitude and a fellow says, “Are you ready?”
He says, “Let me go to the window, I’m ready.”
They said, “No, you’re going to have to jump.”
He said, “I’m going to have jump?” He said, “The fellow pushed him.” He said it wasn’t bad. That was a group of people like him, and like I say, to him it was a job.
He showed me all of his other photos of various generals, because he was stationed in Korea and Japan and other places. He gave me some related Army materials. I suspect that almost nothing about his life in the Army as a photographer, particularly taking pictures of atomic weapons—it’s probably all classified. I haven’t been able to find anything about him, except that they acknowledge the fact that he was at it.
While I’m rambling, there was a black woman, and let me just tell what she did. She was the document handler and administrative assistant to Project Matterhorn. Have you heard of that? I think it was [Project] B, that was the group that dealt with the hydrogen bomb. You had [John] Wheeler and [Enrico] Fermi, and so she knew all of those people. I saw a picture of her in Physics Today, because it was about Wheeler. It was this black woman standing in the middle of all these people.
I was able to locate her in two days. I knew her name, so first of all, I Google stuff, and some names came up and one of them was a lady who was president of Jack and Jill. You folks know Jack and Jill? Jack and Jill. I contacted them and I said, “I would like to get in touch with her. I don’t expect that you’re going to give me her contact information. Tell her what I’m interested in, and if she wants to contact me, she can.”
She contacted me within a day. Part of her documentation in which I’m interviewing her appears as part of The HistoryMakers. You heard of The HistoryMakers? But she was [discussing events that took place in 1951], and [my interview took place] about four years ago, so she was very old and frail. You can’t believe people who are old and frail.
People’s memory change. I’ll give you an example. Imes’ advisor at Michigan was Randall, a very famous scientist that nobody knows about now. He went to Germany and studied under the famous people there. Someone asked him about Imes, and his claim was, “Oh, he didn’t understand what he was doing.” There are lots of other documents, from other students who were there and other professors who were there, who say exactly the opposite thing, that Imes was a very [aware]—if you read his obituaries and everything, there were people praising Imes and so forth.
Why would a person like Randall say that? An interesting thing is no one has ever brought that issue up. I’m going to bring it up, no one has ever brought it up. But, I think it was the following. Because of the work that Imes did, and he was able to use a diatomic molecule, infrared spectroscopy, to verify some things involving quantum mechanics, that not only did you have vibrational, but that the rotational spectrum was also quantized.
I think that this is something that Randall wanted to have attached to his name, rather than Imes. You have a black person, who you know is never going to be able to go out there and perform to the extent that he did in graduate school, primarily because the resources weren’t there. You have all these other people recognizing him.
Jack McAuliffe: While you’re talking a lot about the individual lives of these scientists. It just struck me that I think whether or not people are thinking about African-American involvement in the Manhattan Project, they think of it kind of like a model in a non-individualized way. I just thought it was really great that you were bringing in specific people’s stories and lives. It might be different from what people expected, both in the Manhattan Project and in the aftermath in the scientific community. I think that’s an important project and an important thing to be thinking about when we are telling and thinking about the histories of these people.
Mickens: Yeah. These people had distinct personalities. Many of them were often involved in civil rights activities implicitly, because they had to move in the communities where they might be the only black person. So what do you do? Almost all of them had decided, they were not going to be living twenty miles out in the ghetto. That was a no-no. But they were willing to do what was necessary. You’ve heard of Percy Julian. When he moved in, I believe it was Hyde Park, there’s this famous picture of him up in a tree with a gun, defending his property.
It would be nice if someone could write a coherent story of all of this, where you don’t have just the individual, and see that there are these connections. Not necessarily that these folks knew each other, but that they had very similar responses to what society and the various communities in which they either grew up in or lived in about how to deal with it.
How did someone like a Percy Julian function, who was operating at the highest levels of research and development in organic chemistry, and yet had to worry about whether somebody was going to blow up his house, and set his house on fire, or shoot him? And they were able to do that. He’s not the only person—there are lots of groups of people around the world that live under those circumstances. But how do they do it? What are the coping strategies?
[Transcript was edited at the interviewee’s request, 3 January 2019]