William Knox, the only Black supervisor in the Manhattan Project

William Knox Jr

Source: Photograph HUD 325.04 (Page 209); Harvard University Archives/Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Folio A

The story of the Knox family is one of education overcoming adversity, finds Kit Chapman

Knox was born in 1904 in Massachusetts, US, the eldest of five children. His grandfather Elijah had been a slave in North Carolina, and Elijah’s sister, Harriet Jacobs, had written Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, now regarded as one of the most important first-hand accounts of the southern states before the US civil war. Knox’s father, a mail carrier, emphasised the power of education in gaining a better life, and made the young Knox study hard. The effort was rewarded: in 1921, he gained a place to study chemistry at Harvard University, one of only six Black students in his year.

He was a gifted chemist who found a way to break the colour barrier through science. And yet his story, and that of his brothers, is not simply a celebration of triumph over adversity; it is an important reminder of the value of education, and how we all have a duty to make sure future generations do not experience the struggles of the past.