The family home of Percy Lavon Julian sits on a corner lot in the Oak Park suburb of Chicago. Julian was already a renowned organic chemist when he bought the two-story stone house in 1950. His daughter, Faith Julian, remembers a time when the home was not just the center of their family life, but also a place where her father thrived as a scientist and entrepreneur until his death in 1975. Despite multiple racist attacks to push them out of the neighborhood, Percy Julian would not leave his home, she says. “My dad never wanted to move. He loved this house,” she says.
Now Faith is fighting to stay in the Oak Park home, where she still lives. Taxes, home repairs, and medical expenses have left Faith struggling to maintain ownership of the property, which houses more than 80 boxes of her father’s documents and personal effects. She has twice postponed the sale of the property by Cook County. This month, Faith raised more than $45,000 to pay delinquent taxes with interest for the 2019 fiscal year to Cook County. But the Julian home could go up for sale again in November unless Faith can come up with at least another $35,000 for missed 2020 tax payments and related interest. Faith worries this financial situation could displace her father’s archive and leave her homeless.
Percy Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. He was among the first Black Americans to earn a doctorate in chemistry. As a research fellow at DePauw University in Indiana, Percy pursued research that would lead to the synthesis of an alkaloid called physosigmine, which is produced by the Calabar bean and is used to treat glaucoma. He went on to work as a research scientist at Glidden Company studying natural products produced in soybeans before founding his own company, Julian Laboratories.
When Percy, his wife Anna Johnson Julian, and their two young children moved to Oak Park, it was a small Chicago suburb known for being the home and workplace of luminaries including Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite Percy’s international reputation as an acclaimed scientist, Faith remembers repeated threats against her family to scare them out of the neighborhood. The Julian family hadn’t even moved into the house when someone tried to burn it down with gasoline and a kerosene torch. Less than a year after her parents repaired the resulting damage, someone launched a dynamite bomb at Faith’s window. She was only seven years old. Faith still recalls the horrible stench of the incendiary. “It’s just a smell that I’ll never forget,” she says.
Oak Park has grown in size and diversity over the last 70 years with a population of approximately 55,000 that’s at least 18% Black and African American, according to 2021 census data. The community is highly educated and has invested heavily in its school district, says Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar. The town named a middle school for Percy Julian. The investment in the public schools is one of the factors that has caused property taxes to balloon, creating financial hardships for residents like Faith who moved in before the boom, ElSaffar says.
Faith began falling behind on property tax payments for the home after an illness left her unable to work. She also struggles to cover medical expenses for her treatment.
Cook County gives residents two years to pay delinquent taxes for a given fiscal year with interest. If the amount can’t be paid in full, the county then sells the debt to a third party buyer. Residents have another two years to pay off the debt while still living on the property, but at a much higher interest rate of the buyer’s choosing. If the homeowner still can’t pay the debt, the buyer can sell the property, ElSaffar says.
Faith says she’s now stuck in a cycle of just paying the interest on delinquent property taxes, making it nearly impossible for her to cover the taxes and other expenses for the current year. “This is going be a perennial issue,” ElSaffar says.
Faith estimates that she will need $1.15 million to cover the cost of all the repairs, taxes, interest charges, and her own expenses, according to the GoFundMe campaign she created in September 2021. She hopes these much needed upgrades could get the house in good enough condition to become a museum that celebrates her parents’ legacy and displays some of the items from the archive still kept in the house.
The fact that Percy and his family held their ground against racist attacks in the 1950s is a testament to the chemist’s legacy of living boldly in his personal, social, and scientific pursuits alike, says archivist Bethany Fiechter, who oversees the collection of documents related to Percy’s illustrious career at DePauw. The university is home to an American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmark honoring Percy’s work. ACS publishes C&EN.
“It would be a significant loss to the research community if his papers were lost,” Fiechter says. DePauw and other institutions have expressed interest in obtaining the records Faith maintains, but they have yet to reach a formal agreement.
Faith hopes that someday her family’s home can be a gathering place for scientists and humanitarians once again, serving as the same hub of inspiration for a new generation of bold innovators as it was for her pioneering parents.
This story was updated on May 11, 2022, to correct the date in the caption of the photograph of Faith and Percy Julian. The photo was taken in 1962, not 1963.