Slayton Evans Jr: A Pioneering Black Chemist

In 1961, thirteen riders left Washington DC on Greyhound and Trailways buses for a journey across the American South. The Freedom Riders, as they and subsequent participants would come to be known, took a bold non-violent stand against segregation. After a brutal trip through Alabama, which saw riders beaten while the police stood silent, the Freedom Riders made their way to Jackson, Mississippi on May 24th. In Jackson, riders were arrested and jailed immediately upon using white-only facilities at the bus depot. In response, Freedom Riders flooded Jackson in an effort to overcrowd the jails and force the city to comply with anti-segregation laws. In all, over 300 riders were arrested in Jackson that summer. By November 1st of the same year, the non-violent protests of the Freedom Riders resulted in the Interstate Commerce Commission finally relenting and enforcing the policies that allowed passengers to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains, regardless of the local laws in the cities or states that they passed through.

Little did I know that the legacy of the Freedom Riders reverberated to the halls of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill Chemistry Department. Slayton Evans Jr., an undergraduate student at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, met and was influenced by many of the freedom riders in 1961. As a historically black liberal arts college, Tougaloo became a rallying place for Freedom Riders because its status as a private college allowed protection from invasions by anti-civil rights organizations. Slayton Evans was eventually hired as the first black faculty member in the Chemistry Department at UNC Chapel Hill in 1974. Professor Evan’s commitment to mentoring students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, forged by his experiences in the Civil Rights era, has had a lasting legacy at UNC Chapel Hill and the chemistry community at large.

Professor Evans was born in Chicago, IL, in 1943 but spent his childhood in Meridian, MS. Upon moving south, the Evans’ family lived in a segregated public housing project and Slayton and his younger brother and sister attended a segregated Catholic School. In a number of interviews, Slayton describes the launch of the Sputnik satellite as a transformative moment in his early life. Soon after, he found a book about rocketry in the library and, in his first experience with chemistry, went about making his own dry rocket fuel to launch homemade rockets. Slayton’s initial plan was to enlist in the Air Force with the goal of eventually becoming an astronaut, but his height disqualified him from flight training. Instead, he was able to secure both an academic and athletic scholarship to cover his higher education at Tougaloo College.

During his time in college, two internships at Abbott Laboratories in Chicago solidified Slayton’s desire to be a research chemist. He entered graduate school at Case Western Reserve University with the necessary financial aid provided by a research assistantship. In a fortunate turn of events, his graduate project investigating a medication for a parasitic disease common to Southeast Asia was deemed crucial to the war effort in Vietnam and allowed him to defer his draft notice.

In 1970 Dr. Evans joined renowned chemist Ernest Eliel at the University of Notre Dame for a postdoctoral position studying stereochemistry and conformational analysis of small organic molecules. After his time at Notre Dame, Dr. Evans accepted a position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. At around the same time, Professor Eliel moved to UNC Chapel Hill as the W. R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chemistry and sought to recruit his former postdoc to join the department. With the opportunity to continue a research career at a larger university, Professor Evans joined UNC Chapel Hill as an assistant professor in 1974, becoming the first black chemist in the department’s now 200-year history.

Professor Evans had a long and successful career at UNC Chapel Hill. He rose to the rank of professor in only 10 years and established a legacy of excellence in both mentoring and science. His scientific contributions focused on organophosphorus chemistry, especially for asymmetric synthesis and conformational analysis. His asymmetric synthesis of alpha-amino phosphonic acids using sulfimides as directing groups stands as a landmark contribution to the field (J. Org. Chem. 1997, 62, 7532.). His experimental work was known for its depth. Jeff Kelly, a student of Prof. Evans and currently the Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute, said “Slayton was a model professor. He had very high standards and demanded excellence from his students. I would not be in academia today had I not been mentored by Slayton Evans.” For his scientific contributions, Slayton was awarded the 1995 Special Creativity Award in Organophosphorus Chemistry from the NSF. His expertise was also highly sought after by national and international organizations; he served in advisory roles for the NSF, NIH, and as chair of the U.S. National Committee of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).

Professor Evans was also known as an excellent mentor who was deeply committed to recruiting and championing minority students. He strived to make complex subjects accessible to undergraduates and relished one-on-one mentoring relationships with undergraduate and graduate students alike. Derrick Tabor, Prof. Evans’s first Ph.D. student and now a program director at the NIH National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, said: “He had a wonderful gift for making undergraduate students, graduate students and his friends and colleagues feel special.” For his prodigious efforts in education and promoting diversity, Prof. Evans was honored with the UNC Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, the UNC Tanner Award for Teaching Excellence, and the ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences.

Professor Evans passed away in 2001 at the age of 58 years old. As a testament to Professor Evans’s legacy, donations flooded in to endow the Slayton Evans Jr. Memorial Fund, which supports the visit of a preeminent speaker in the chemical sciences each year. Recently, the Slayton Evans Lecture has focused on specifically highlighting the contributions of diverse chemists and is coupled with an outreach program that brings undergraduate students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to UNC for the day. This annual event, along with the lasting influence he had on science, his trainees, and his colleagues, has kept the remarkable life and legacy of Professor Evans shining bright.

Sources:

1. Charles W. Cary Jr. African Americans in Science: An Encyclopedia of People and Progress. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA (2008).

2. ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences (https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/funding-and-awards/awards/national/bytopic/acs-award-for-encouraging-disadvantaged-students-into-careers-in-the-chemical-sciences.html)

3. James H. Kessler, J. S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd, Katherine A. Morin. Distinguished African-American Scientists of the 20th Century. The Orxy Press, Phoenix, AZ (1996).

4. Jim Magaw. Carolina’s First African-American Chemist Honored with Lecture Fund. Carolina Connections (2003).

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