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The Jackie Robinson of Chemistry: Racism as a Disease

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For years people have judged others only by the color of their skin. Dr. Herbert Smitherman made it his life mission to prove colored people can be just as educated if not more than white people. He put in a lot of hard work and went through a lot of discrimination to become the extremely successful chemists, professor, principal, and dad he was.

Dr. Smitherman was born on March 23, 1937, in Birmingham Alabama. He was an only child. His mother, Alberta Smitherman was a homemaker, his father, Otis C. Smitherman was a reverend to a Baptist church. While he was growing up his father’s church was burnt twice while colored people were fighting for voting rights. From a very young age, it was obvious to Smitherman’s parents that he was an extremely smart child and was bound to attend college even though it would be difficult for his family to make that happen. 

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Another thing that was obvious while Smitherman was growing up was, he always did outstandingly well in chemistry. He also really enjoyed getting to do it. His love for chemistry is what lead him to decide to attend college majoring in the area of chemistry. He attended the Tuskegee Institute which is where he obtained his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in physical organic chemistry. 

As a result of graduating from Tuskegee, he decided to move to Texas Southern University in Houston to teach chemistry as a professor. After teaching for a couple of years he left and served in the United States military for two years. When he got out, he decided to return to college at Howard University as a doctoral student. Therefore, later graduating and earning his Ph. D in physical organic chemistry.

Dr. Smitherman becoming so educated is the main reason that helped him to become the first black hire at the company Proctor and Gamble. Proctor and Gamble is a consumer goods company. “He was hired in 1966 and was put in the records as the first colored man to be hired with a doctorate level of education in physical organic chemistry.” (Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman Sr.) 

He was discriminated against for being the first colored man hired at that company. People thought he wasn’t smart enough to be there and that he didn’t belong there, just because of the color of his skin. Little did those people know that at the time he spent there he would work himself up to becoming one of the company’s top leading chemists. “He gained the nickname Jackie Robinson of Proctor and Gamble from all of his hard work, time, and effort that he put into the company during his time there.” (Little Known Black History Fact: Dr. Herbert Smitherman 2010) 

He spent a total of 29 years at Proctor and Gamble. “While he was there, he helped to improve many well-known products such as Crest toothpaste, Folgers Coffee, Safeguard soap, Bounce Fabric Softeners Biz Detergent and Crush soda.” (Little Known Black History Fact: Dr. Herbert Smitherman 2010) Many credit him with creating these products but he only helped to improve or change these already made products. He helped to change products by creating new formulas, alterations, and developments. He also helped to change their manufacturing. Dr. Smitherman helped Proctor and Gamble to become so well-known and helped them to have a positive reputation.

After retiring from Proctor and Gamble 29 years later he was hired by Wilberforce University. He worked there for four years. “He worked as Professor of Chemistry and Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs.” (Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman Sr.) After deciding to leave Wilberforce he decided to change his direction entirely and do something completely different. Smitherman decided to create a high school. 

He created the Western Hills Design Technology School. He wanted to provide help for struggling colored students. His main purpose for creating the school was to help colored students do better and excel in areas such as mathematics and sciences. Smitherman ended up being principal at Western Hills Design Technology School. ‘He was the principal there for about 9 years 2000-2009.” (Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman, Sr.) 

He wanted to do everything he could do to try to help struggling black students. He wanted to see them succeed because he knew that they could. Even though Dr. Smitherman had a very busy life he still made sure to always have plenty of time with family and to always make sure he kept his family number one in his life above all other things he had going on. He was very active in his community and always participated in activities that kept his family bonded. “He was a boy scout leader, a little league baseball coach, an officer of the Walnut Hills High school parent board, a tutor, a member of stepping stones and NAACP.”(Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman, Sr.) His being involved with his community and his six kids and wife was very important to him.

Due to what Dr. Smitherman went through he helped to create many organizations and foundations to help other people like him. He helped to make a program at Proctor and Gamble that brings in more colored engineers and chemists to the company. ‘Many Proctor and Gamble engineers and chemists who were African American and hired during the 1970s and 1980s was hired because of the program he created.” (Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman, Sr.) 

He also assisted in the creation of NOBCHE (the national organization for black chemists and chemical engineers). “The goal of NOBCHE is to help colored engineers and scientists across the United States to encourage professionalism and collaboration.” (Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman, Sr.) Dr. Smitherman got Proctor and Gamble to award the first scholarship to an African American Ph. D applicant through NOBCHE. The organization yearly still currently gives out scholarships to chemical engineers and Ph. D chemists. 

Smitherman also established a program during the summer to have college students come to Proctor and Gamble and see what it is like to be in that type of workplace. This gave students a feel for what this was like and let them see if this was something they’d potentially want to do. “He founded the Black Technical Ph.D. group at Proctor and Gamble. The point of this group was to recommend colored engineers and scientists to be paid, promoted and awarded for the things they’ve done.” (Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman, Sr.) 

Smitherman was also a part of creating a Saturday enrichment program for two Cincinnati schools. Local scientists and mathematicians devoted their time and skills to try to pour into these young kids and try to help the kids improve and have a better future. His creating and being a part of these programs helped many-colored students who were similar to him and helped students who were different than him at that age. He contributed to changing the lives of many students and adults through these programs.

Dr. Smitherman was a living example of why discrimination should not stop anyone from doing something that they want to do, and that people can’t judge how educated someone is by how they look. His hard work, dedication and him not giving into what other people thought and said about him are what lead him to be so successful

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