Throughout Black History Month, we’re going to be sharing the stories of a very small handful of the numerous black leaders who have had an impact on education in America.
This week, let’s travel back to the turn of the 20th century to learn a little more about Ernest Everett Just, the founder of the first African-American fraternity at Howard University, Omega Psi Phi, which founded Black History Month itself.
Ernest Everett Just grew up in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1880s and 90s. His father died when Just was 4 years old, and then Just fell ill with Typhoid fever for six weeks. The fever damaged his memory, so he had to learn reading and writing all over again. Despite the setbacks, Just’s mother, a teacher at a school for black children, recognized that her son was a bright and inquisitive student, so she sent him to a boarding school in New Hampshire, where he was the only black student. Just graduated high school in only three years.
Just enrolled at Dartmouth College, where he developed a passion for biology. In 1907, Just graduated as the only student to achieve magna cum laude honors, not only in biology but also zoology, botany, and sociology. According to a biography of Just, he was considered to deliver a speech at commencement, but he was not chosen because faculty “decided it would be a faux pas to allow the only black student in the graduating class to address the crowd of parents, alumni, and benefactors. It would have made too glaring the fact that Just had won just about every prize imaginable."
After graduating from Dartmouth, Just – like many other highly educated black people during this time –realized that getting hired at a traditionally white college or university was nearly impossible. So, he began working as an English and Biology teacher and researcher at Howard University, where he was eventually put in charge of the Biology Department and was the head of the Department of Zoology.
Along with three students who approached him about starting a black fraternity (the first one at Howard), Just founded Omega Psi Phi. The fraternity would later go on to launch Negro History and Literature Week, which eventually evolved into Black History Month.
In Just’s short life – he died at age 58 – he went on to receive a Doctorate from the University of Chicago; pioneer many developments in physiology, such as fertilization, cell division, cell hydration and dehydration, and more; and win the NAACP's first Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by a black American.
Despite earning multiple degrees and awards and pioneering so much research in his field, Just’s opportunities for work in the United States were limited by racial discrimination. He eventually moved to Europe to continue his work as a researcher and educator, but was imprisoned by Nazis in Germany. Only a year after being released from the Nazi camp, Just died of cancer.
Just overcame the overwhelming odds against him to become one of the foremost scholars in cell biology and led the way for students who too found their passion in the life sciences.