African Americans have made contributions to maritime history and the sciences from the colonial period forward. The first wave of academically credentialed African American marine scientists, however, would not be born until toward the end of the 19th century. HarborLAB serves budding African American scientists through its youth programs each year, and for Black History Month honors trailblazers from years past.
Outstanding among the first generation of African American university scholars in the marine sciences were Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young, both born in the 1880s. Both went to prominent universities and did field-shaping research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but white students were deprived of their gifts as teachers because of racial bigotry. Fortunately Dr. Just and Dr. Young received faculty appointments at historically black institutions where they inspired new generations of scientists.
Dr. Just was renowned as a master designer of experiments. Though he died before the discovery of DNA, Dr. Just focused on eggs, especially those of marine invertebrates, because he saw them as the key to understanding life as an emergent complex system. An excellent biography of Dr. Just is Black Apollo of Science, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Dr. Young was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in zoology. She studied under Dr. Just and they both shared a mentor in Frank Rattray Lillie, a founder and first president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She performed cutting edge experiments on the effects of radiation on marine eggs. Her radiation work, study of cellular salt regulation, and dehydration and rehydration of living cells can be seen as a precursor to today’s booming field of extremophile studies. Understanding the extreme tolerances of terrestrial organisms aids astrobiologists searching harsher worlds for signs of life.
Despite the achievements of the generation of Dr. Just and Dr. Young, and those who followed, even today to be a black marine biologist or oceanographer is pioneering. Dr. Ashanti Johnson, oceanographer, shares her experiences and inspiration in the video above. Students entering the field will likely have few or no black professors. HarborLAB’s message to these students is a simple one: Please, don’t be discouraged. Don’t allow yourself to feel excluded. We need as many bright young people as possible to study these fields because with fish stocks crashing and coral reefs dying, and ocean acidity increasing due to carbon dioxide pollution, advancement of marine sciences is a matter of survival.
A great resource for students of color seeking careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is the Institute for Broadening Participation’s Pathways to Science program. HarborLAB strongly recommends studying with our Natural Sciences partners at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and CUNY Baruch College. And of course, HarborLAB volunteers serve students by introducing them to the greatest teacher of all: Nature. As Dr. Just describes his first classroom, it was not with four walls:
“[It] was full of birds and flowers, especially in the spring, when the wrens awakened to the smell of wisteria and dogwood. Azaleas and camellias blossomed along the ditches where tadpoles swam, and Spanish moss gleamed from the trees…”
If you are part of a school or community group and want to join HarborLAB in environmental service learning on our boats or ashore, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.