In 1964, US president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The law banned segregation in businesses and discriminatory practices in employment and educational institutions. For Black people in America, it was a sign of progress toward the equality they had long fought for. By the 1970s, however, many felt disillusioned by the slow pace of change. Facing continued discrimination by traditionally White institutions and societies, Black people responded in part by creating their own organizations. One of those societies was the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, more commonly known as NOBCChE (pronounced “no-buh-shay”).
William Jackson, a young chemist who worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had been a member of the American Chemical Society for nearly a decade by the early 1970s. One of just a few Black scientists who attended ACS meetings at the time, he says he felt marginalized and unrecognized by the society. (ACS publishes C&EN.)
William Guillory, a professor at Drexel University, and Charles Merideth, who was the chancellor at the Atlanta University Center, say they felt similarly. “It was such a disappointing experience to go to the American Chemical Society meetings,” Guillory recalls, now at Innovations International. “We had a two-sided kind of experience to work with,” he says, noting that White chemists could focus only on the science, whereas Black scientists had to first prove themselves as scientists before their research could be accepted by their peers.
The Black Power movement, which emphasized Black pride and the creation of cultural organizations and institutions that prioritized Black people, had become influential. Echoing the self-reliance theme of the movement, Jackson says there was a feeling among Black scientists “that we didn’t need the American Chemical Society or the American Physical Society to define us. We could define our own selves.”
Then, while traveling together to a meeting, Merideth and Guillory had a life-changing scare when their plane hit an air pocket and dropped several hundred feet. They landed safely—and with a new appreciation for the brevity of life and a sense of urgency. Guillory immediately called Jackson to say, “ ‘We need to do something before we die that has some importance,’ ” Jackson recalls. Guillory suggested that they should start their own organization of Black chemists, one that would recognize Black excellence in the chemical sciences.
The colleagues first met at Guillory’s home in Philadelphia to discuss how to get the group started. They began by listing and contacting all the Black chemists they knew—mostly academics. They also contacted Joseph Cannon, a chemical engineer at Howard University. They wanted to build an inclusive organization to connect chemists, chemical engineers, and anyone interested in increasing the participation of Black people in those fields. Not long after, Merideth, Guillory, Jackson, and Cannon were joined in their efforts by their colleagues Henry C. McBay, a chemistry professor at Morehouse College and one of Jackson’s former teachers; James Porter, who was a chemical engineer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Lloyd Ferguson, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles.
They held their first official meeting at a Holiday Inn in Washington, DC, in 1972, where they formed the Ad Hoc Committee for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, which later became NOBCChE.
Their first order of business was funding. The founding members contributed start-up cash of $200 each and had received small grants from the Haas Community Fund and Drexel University to organize their first meeting. They began expanding their outreach to other Black chemists and chemical engineers to gauge interest, and word about the new society spread. Just 2 years later, in 1974, they held their first national meeting. It was held in New Orleans in conjunction with Beta Kappa Chi, a scientific honor society, and the National Institute of Science, a nonprofit that provides opportunities in science at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Such meetings were vital to the funding and growth of NOBCChE. They focused on providing a venue for chemists and chemical engineers to share their work and discuss their careers. These opportunities were key because recognition by one’s colleagues plays an important role in feeling accepted, Guillory says. NOBCChE acknowledged the work of Black scientists by giving awards for outstanding research.
Some European organizations at the time had recognized the research that Black scientists had produced by inviting them to speak and also granting awards, but that same appreciation was lagging in the US. The number of Black chemists acknowledged for their work did not reflect the number of Black scientists or the quality of their research, according to Guillory. He says that one of NOBCChE’s continued goals is to promote these exceptional scientists.
NOBCChE’s initial members were largely HBCU alumni. Guillory credits HBCUs like his undergraduate alma mater, Dillard University, for his success in later graduate work. HBCUs offer a sense of personhood and an awareness of the inequities and barriers Black people face, he says. HBCUs still provide an educational foundation for many of the organization’s members.
As NOBCChE grew, its members began forming local chapters, furthering the reach of the society. The organization opened membership to graduate students in 1978, and since then, students have been an important part of NOBCChE’s meetings and events. NOBCChE extended its reach to high school students in 1989 with the launch of the National Science Bowl, a science competition for high school students from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented in chemistry.
Guillory became NOBCChE’s first president in 1974. During his tenure, NOBCChE made a connection with the China Association for Science and Technology. Several founding members traveled to China and formed a scientific exchange just as China began opening up to the West. Guillory hoped to make additional connections to scientists in Africa but was unable to do so before he stepped down as president in 1980. He is among the organization’s longest-serving presidents, second only to its first female president, Winifred Burks-Houck, who served from 1994 to 2001.
NOBCChE and its founders also started influencing research policy. In the early ’70s, Guillory received a call from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. Kennedy chaired the committee that directed the funding of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and he was aware of the underrepresentation of women, people of color, and disabled people in the sciences. His office sought ideas for how to improve the situation. Guillory suggested that Jackson, who had joined Howard University in 1974, would be an ideal contact in DC.
Jackson advised Kennedy to build a relationship with HBCUs and proposed forming research centers for science and engineering at HBCUs. Such centers would mimic a previous program that created centers of excellence at predominantly White institutions. Grants previously awarded to HBCUs had been small, and Jackson thought this new program could do better. He called on his colleagues—including Jose Martinez, who had recently helped found the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science—and encouraged them to contact the appropriations committee to champion the idea and request funding.
Three years later, the NSF’s Minority Institutions Science Improvement Program provided the first major funding from the US federal government for institutions, such as Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) and the University of Puerto Rico, that serve marginalized racial and ethnic groups. “That was the first major impact” of NOBCChE, Jackson says. “That was the way we brought in a lot of young faculty members from HBCUs and minority-serving institutions” to NOBCChE, he says. And it is a testament to the value of institutions serving people of color that over NOBCChE’s 50-year history, many of its presidents, Guillory and Jackson included, have attended HBCUs.
NOBCChE has also played an advisory role in ensuring that HBCUs get funding through the NSF’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology and HBCU Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering. Jackson served on the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, which works with the NSF to implement the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act of 1980 and reports to the US Congress on the ongoing progress toward increasing the diversity of scientists.
At the time of NOBCChE’s founding, Guillory saw the organization as a tool for solving a problem for Black chemists. “My initial thinking, and probably naively, was that someday we would merge some kind of way as a one-to-one partner with the American Chemical Society,” he says. He had hoped for a future in which a separate organization for Black chemists would no longer be needed. He has since come to agree with Jackson, who sees NOBCChE’s continued independence as vital given the ongoing struggles for equal representation in chemistry, engineering, and other sciences.
In 2002, Jackson told C&EN that “the problem of poor minority representation in science is not over.” Almost 20 years later, during NOBCChE’s 2021 national meeting, he made a similar observation—that although the percentage of PhDs awarded to Black scientists has doubled since NOBCChE’s founding, that’s still not good enough. The number of Black people working as scientists in the US should reflect their proportion of the US population.
“The simple continued existence of the organization and people attending the national meeting” validate the ongoing need for NOBCChE, Guillory says. “The organization is working very hard with some experienced and knowledgeable people about where we should be going.”
NOBCChE continues to recognize Black excellence in chemistry. It has given its highest honor, the Percy L. Julian Award, to such notable chemists as Isiah Warner, Willie May, Paula Hammond, and Malika Jeffries-EL among others. It also gives awards in honor of founders Ferguson, Cannon, and McBay. The organization is now 50 years old, and planning is underway to celebrate its anniversary on Sept. 11–15, 2023, in New Orleans, the location of its first annual meeting.
This article was updated on Aug. 8, 2022, to name the other person in the photo with Henry C. McBay: Ronald E. Mickens, a colleague of McBay's at Clark Atlanta University.