The Making of a Nuclear Engineer, Inventor, and Black: Film Historian: Dr. Henry Thomas Sampson, Jr

Article excerpt

Autobiographies and "life-writings" are some of the most valuable primary sources on the African American experience, and autobiography is the most important genre in the African American literary and intellectual traditions. In order to participate in these traditions. The Journal of African American History will be publishing autobiographical portraits by individuals who accept our invitation to share their life stories with our readers. I hope you agree with me that Dr. Henry T. Sampson's narrative about his life and career warrant inclusion in the documentation of the African American experience in the 20th century.

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On Saturday, 9 February 2008, Our Authors Study Club, Inc. of Los Angeles, California, an award-winning ASALH branch, held its annual Carter G. Woodson Scholarship and Award Luncheon honoring outstanding African Americans in various fields. At the event I received the "George Washington Carver Renaissance Inventors Award." In my acceptance remarks, I attempted to answer a question that I had been asked many times over the years by friends and colleagues: "How did you start out with such humble beginnings in Jackson, Mississippi, and go on to forge a successful career as an engineer and author of several books on the contributions of African Americans to American popular culture?" Those questions of sincere interest prompted me to write this autobiographical portrait, with the encouragement and assistance of my wife and my daughter-in-law, describing my early life, schooling and training, and my achievements as an inventor, engineer, researcher, and black film historian.

PROLOGUE

On 22 April 1934 in Jackson, Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, then regarded as the "Archangel of white supremacy" and subsequently dubbed "America's most notorious merchant of hatred" by the Saturday Evening Post, began his first term as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. During his 1946 re-election bid, Bilbo called on "every red-blooded white man to use any means to get niggers away from the polls ... if you don't understand what that means, you are just plain dumb."(1) Bilbo echoed the sentiments of the Ku Klux Klan and many other white racists all across the racially segregated state. In 1960, less than 2 percent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote. (2) Disfranchisement was not the only problem facing African Americans; Mississippi also led the nation in persecution by vigilante groups and up to 500 men, women, and children were lynched between 1882 and 1930. (3) In 1929, before the coming of the Great Depression, there were 52,000 people working in Mississippi's industrial sectors; by 1934 it had decreased to 28,000. (4) Bank deposits in Mississippi had dropped from $101 million to $9 million in that same period.(5) In the state capital of Jackson, small and large business owners experienced a measure of economic growth, stimulated by the discovery of natural gas fields near the city in the 1930s, but little of this newfound wealth managed to trickle down to African American workers and their families. Of African Americans who still had jobs outside the home, the vast majority were employed as housemaids, servants, and other service workers. Most of these positions required minimal levels of schooling and offered no opportunity for advancement. But, there were enough African Americans in the professional and working classes in Jackson to support at least one black newspaper, M. L. Rogers's Southern Register. (6) And there were numerous black churches of many denominations. This was Jackson, Mississippi's racial, social, and economic climate into which I was born at 3:00 A.M. on 22 April 1934 in the Ellis family home.

FAMILY BACKGROUND AND EARLY EDUCATION

As far back as I can remember, I was interested in discovering new things and I wanted to know exactly how mechanical and electrical objects worked and were put together. I created many of my own toys such as kites from homemade paste, newspapers, and tree branches; played with telephones from two empty cans connected with a wire; walked on stilts made from two empty cans with wires strung through them; shot china berries out of a pop-gun I made from a broomstick handle and an elm tree branch, an activity traced to slave boys on southern plantations; and I made slingshots. …