In his October 2020 column titled “Career choices” (page 8), Charles Day introduces three individuals whose obituaries appeared in different issues of Physics Today in 1998. One of the themes was why the individuals selected the careers that they did, all of which grew out of their having doctoral degrees in physics.
One of the people mentioned was Rutherford Adkins, who after being drafted in 1941 became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American aviator unit in the US armed forces. Adkins was a fighter pilot who flew the P-51D Mustang and completed 14 combat missions. But he and his fellow pilots and support personnel faced both Jim Crow laws and legal racial segregation in the US and at foreign military bases while fighting for “democracy” in Europe.
At the end of his column, Day notes that he doesn’t know “why Adkins became a physicist after fighting the Luftwaffe,” or why the other two physicists he mentions made the choices they made in their careers. “But,” he says, “their lives remind us of the choices we have, even in difficult times.”
I authored Adkins’s obituary in Physics Today (September 1998, page 90), and I write this letter to shine some light on the complex issue of why Adkins chose to be a physicist. The statements to come are based on my personal experiences and on my interactions with Adkins—who was one of my physics professors at Fisk University and, later, my colleague and friend.
Young Black girls and boys in the US have always been curious and sought various ways to understand the natural world. But in the 1930s, when Adkins was of school age, the realities of American society generally did not allow them to acquire the same education as white students. Many of them lived in states where Black children went to separate schools, which received far less funding than those for white children, and only a small percentage made it to high school. But the Black children could still ask, “Why is the day sky blue, but the night sky black?” “Why can birds fly, but not humans?” “Why can water flow, but a stick cannot?” “Why?” “Why?”
Their elders told them that answers existed and that the mechanism to obtain, to comprehend, and to extend that knowledge was education. In 1930, when Adkins was five years old, few Black adults had received an education that taught them more than the skills necessary for domestic and agricultural work, according to a 2004 American Educator article by Peter Irons. But Black children nevertheless understood the power of education and how it could be used for the betterment of one’s physical, mental, social, intellectual, and spiritual livelihoods and experiences. Not only was education valued, but educated Black individuals were considered to be of great importance to the community. From the Reconstruction era to the late 1950s, they talked to the “white power structure,” helped secure jobs for other Black people, wrote obituaries and letters of recommendation, initiated voter registration drives, and generally acted as protectors of the Black community’s interests.
Thus it is not surprising that Adkins wanted to be a physicist. As a child, he had taken apart radios and clocks, exploded ants with lenses using the light of the Sun, set his house ablaze in exploration of the properties of fire, and read and reread the articles on relativity in his ragged copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
After his graduation from high school, Adkins’s physics education journey spanned nearly a decade and a half, culminating in his receiving a doctorate in physics in 1955 from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. That journey was initiated by two major factors: Adkins’s desire to comprehend the physical world and his need to give back to and uplift the community from which he came. All of that was accomplished within the restrictions imposed by being Black in the US.