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Bobby L. Wilson

Environmental chemist and academic administrator Bobby L. Wilson was born on September 30, 1942 in Columbus, Mississippi, the eldest child of Lilly Mae Wilson and Johnny B. Wilson. After graduating from Hunt High School in 1962, Wilson attended Alabama State University where he received his B.S. degree in chemistry. Wilson then took a teaching position at Booker T. Washington High School as a chemistry and physics teacher until he decided to continue his education in 1970. He received his M.S. degree in chemistry from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and did his doctoral work at Michigan State University where he received his Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 1976.

Wilson settled in Houston, Texas, where he became an assistant professor of chemistry at the historically black Texas Southern University (TSU) in 1976. In 1978, Wilson became the regional chairman of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). After spending parts of 1982 and 1983 as a visiting research professor at Exxon’s research and engineering facility in Baytown, Texas, Wilson returned to TSU to become a full professor of chemistry in 1985. One year later, Wilson began his involvement in the TSU administration, becoming an associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. By 1987, Wilson was head of the chemistry department, and during the 1989-1990 school year, he was the interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. Wilson then became the vice president for academic affairs in 1990, and in 1992, he was appointed to provost of TSU, a position he held until 1994, and again beginning in 1999. From 1996 to 1997, Wilson was the program director for the Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. Wilson was named acting president of TSU for a few months in 2006 and again in 2007.

Over the course of his career as an environmental chemist, Wilson has had his research published dozens of times in addition to publishing two general chemistry textbooks. He gave over seventy major presentations to his peers, advised dozens of doctoral theses, held three patents and won numerous research grants from institutions such as NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Egyptian Government. In 1998, Wilson became a member of NOBCChE’s executive board, and in 2005, he became chairman. Wilson also served on the executive board of the Texas Academy of Science.

Bobby Wilson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 11, 2007.

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Academic administrator and environmental chemist Bobby L. Wilson (1942 - ) rose to the position of provost at Texas Southern University and served in a leadership role in the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE).


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<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Bobby Wilson's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Bobby Wilson shares his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Bobby Wilson talks about his mother's side of the family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Bobby Wilson talks about his mother's upbringing in Plum Grove, Mississippi</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Bobby Wilson talks about his father's side of the family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Bobby Wilson talks about his father's upbringing and adult life</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Bobby Wilson talks about his parents' personalities and early childhood memories of school and siblings</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Bobby Wilson talks about the benefits of land ownership</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Bobby Wilson talks about the influence of the church</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Bobby Wilson talks about his love of school, his mentors and his influences</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Bobby Wilson talks about his experience with the Civil Rights Movement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Bobby Wilson talks about his extracurricular activities and academic experiences at Hunts High School</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Bobby Wilson explains how he was able to attend Alabama State University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Bobby Wilson talks about his social and academic experiences at Alabama State University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Bobby Wilson talks about Alabama State University's participation in the Civil Rights Movement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Bobby Wilson talks about the deaths of John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Bobby Wilson explains his decision to major in chemistry</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Bobby Wilson talks about social changes in the city of Montgomery and at Alabama State University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Bobby Wilson explains his decision to return to graduate school after teaching high school chemistry and physics</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Bobby Wilson talks about Affirmative Action and applying to graduate school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Bobby Wilson explains his concentration in inorganic chemistry synthesis at Michigan State University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Bobby Wilson talks about getting a job at Texas Southern University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Bobby Wilson discusses the formation of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Bobby Wilson talks about his positions and promotions at Texas Southern University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Bobby Wilson talks about his role at Texas Southern University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Bobby Wilson shares his hopes and concerns for the black community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Bobby Wilson reflects on his honors and awards as well as his career choices</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Bobby Wilson responds to questions about his legacy and his children</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Bobby Wilson talks about his research project in Egypt</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Bobby Wilson explains how he would like to be remembered</a>







Bobby Wilson talks about his love of school, his mentors and his influences
Bobby Wilson explains his decision to major in chemistry
Okay. So I take it you liked school and you liked that kind of role?$$Yeah, I always had a love for school, including Sunday school, still go to Sunday school. So I've always had, and I always did pretty good in school. I mean, you know, my mother [Lillie Mae Coleman] never had to bother me about studying and all this stuff about, I didn't need nobody to tell me to study. I had an assignment so I did my assignment, and nobody ever said anything to me about it. My brother right under me was just the opposite. And my sister next to him was just the opposite.$$Okay, now, did you have any heroes or mentors growing up?$$If you start right in the, out there in the country, it would have Albert Anthony, the man who owned all this land, and he drove a Cadillac and my parents [Johnny B. Wilson and Lillie Mae Coleman], they drove Fords. And eventually, they switched over to a Chevrolet. That's another story cause I got blamed for it being out of fix all the time. But the, then you got your heroes. We bought, we got our first television set in '56 [1956] and since I was born in '42 [1942]. So we had a television set in '66 [1966]--$$Fifty-six [1956].$$Fifty-six [1956], so then you start getting your heroes on television, but they also had a theater in Columbus [Mississippi]. So as we got to be, and my parents would always go to town each Saturday, and so we would go to the, what they called the picture show, the theater. And so you had your heroes, you know, the different cowboys, and each one of us had a nickname, that was gonna be one of the cowboys. I think I was Bob Steele or something like, and everything. So you had those, but when you, the real heroes was much later on in life. It was actually when I, and it was by way of television cause I was fully aware that Kennedy [President John F. Kennedy] became a hero, much more so or probably sooner than Martin Luther King [Jr.] in terms of the real hero type things. And I can remember, that's, I can remember the physician then becoming the hero, the black doctor. So when my parents would ask you what you wanna be when you grow up, and they would do that, not necessarily my parents, but older people. So they would quite ask me what you wanna do when you grow up? And it would range everything from a farmer, and I would only say that because I wanted to be like Albert Anthony, and I'd get a lot of folks working for me, making a lot of money, and I'm collecting most of it. Then I can get rich. Or I would tell 'em, I wanna be the president of the United States. Neither one of those was the right answer for them. One was unrealistic, the other was, you shouldn't wanna be a farmer. But then I would play with 'em like that. What I really wanted to be was, I knew I would go to college. I was pretty good in math and I loved math and science and Sputnik [satellite] came along in what '58 [1958]?$$Fifty-seven [1957], yeah.$$Fifty-seven [1957], and so then the space age had a great impact on my, on what I thought I wanted to be, but it was gonna be some kind of science.$$Okay, so while you were in high school, and it gets to be the early years of high school, you were then a sophomore around there in high school when Sputnik was launched?$$I would have been still in the country in the last year of the eight, first eight years. I went to high school in '62 [1962]--$$Okay.$$I mean in '58 [1958], graduated in '62 [1962].$$Okay.$$So I would have been in my last year--$$In grade school.$$--in grade school. And so--$$As Sputnik went up and a lot of talk about the science for a while, I mean in that period, was big on television, a lot of projections about the future.$$And a lot of fear because we was building bombs, we were building bomb shelters, and people was storing up food. I mean I was fully aware and had fears and very conscious of the kind of world, you know, that we were living in. My uncle had served in the Korean conflict and he was coming home telling me war stories. And so the Russians was a big fear to me. The atomic bomb or some more atomic bombs and the hydrogen bomb which was more powerful than the atomic bomb, and so, and so I would spend a lot of my time envisioning, well how long can you stay in a shelter? How long will the food last?$$Yeah, those were the questions.$$And so I knew I was going off to college. I knew would be, I would major in some kind of science. I knew it was not gonna be biology. I did not wanna be a medical doctor because my parents used to make me stay with the old, older people who were sick. So I had been turned off by sickness, like my grandmother was sick, the aunt sick. You had to babysit the sick. Well, see I didn't wanna to have any part of anything that had to do with biology and medicine. I wanted to be, I knew it would be some kind of physical science. Now, that part I did know. I didn't wanna be a lawyer, didn't want no part of a lawyer, sort of had a little church thing about it. It seemed like lawyers could lie either way.$So, now, to chemistry, for a second. When did you first conceive of yourself as becoming a chemist?$$Actually, as I said, I knew I would be a scientist, math or science. Dr. McDonald came in as part of [Levi] Watkins' recruitment of quality folk. He passed a few months ago. Matter of fact, he was chairman of the Department of Chemistry here at TSU [Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas] when I came. And so he came out of UT [University of Texas, Austin] with a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1962. So he was over at Alcorn [State] University [Lorman, Mississippi]. So Watkins recruited him and brought him to Alabama State [University, Montgomery, Alabama]. And we was standing in these lines for registration--this is how it happened, how I got into chemistry. And these long lines, you know, back in those days, you could stand in line for days. Now, these long lines and so a bunch of us in the biology line and I looked up and saw there was another line up there, and wasn't nobody in the line. So my three little buddies, two, the three of us said man, let's go up here and get in this short line. We walked up to Dr. McDonald and told him we wanted to register. And he said, you know, this is the chemistry. We're registering chemistry majors. So we told him, okay, we wanna be chemistry majors then. So he asked us about our math grades. So when we told him, and this was our second year. See, this was our second year in college. So he asked about the math grades. And once we told him the math grades, he said, yeah, you'll make a good chemistry major. So the three of us signed up, and we all graduated three years later with chemistry, as chemistry majors. I could have very well stayed in the biology line. I could have gotten in the math line. I really wanted to major in physics, but they didn't have a physics major. I enjoyed physics a lot more in high school than I did chemistry, but because I just loved, physics was just nice. But, but they didn't have a physics major. So the three of us chose chemistry, and we got in that line and we became, that was the Class of '66 [1966] as chemistry majors, Wilson, James and Walker.$$Okay, did you have a sense of any other black chemists, I mean that you could aspire to be like in those days?$$At the time that I was in college, not really. Dr. McDonald became the model. Here it is, a twenty-eight year old, African, black man with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas in chemistry. So then he becomes the model. And he then, many evenings and afternoons, we, I would just go to his office, and he'd sit there and tell me about his experience at UT. And, and then he would tell me that I was smart enough to be a chemist, a Ph.D. chemist. And so then he would tell his war stories, and then so, we just, it was often that I'd get trapped in his office in the afternoon and we'd sit there and talk. And so then he becomes the model, the model chemist because, to be very frank, outside of, not a person, but watching television growing up in Mississippi, they had something called "DuPont Show of the Week". So that was the first place I heard anything about chemistry, "better living through chemistry".$$Right, that's right.$$And the only other place I heard it was watching television. There was a commercial for Borax 20-mule team [cleaning solution]--$$Mule team.$$Yeah, so those are my first experience with anything about chemistry. And that was prior to going to high school. That was after getting a television in 1956 and watching these shows. But then when I got on the campus and they brought McDonald, if Alabama State hadn't brought folk in like McDonald in '63 [1963], I wouldn't be a chemistry major cause they didn't even have a chemistry major on the campus. He started the chemistry major. And I was at Alabama State so I was gonna major in something. And it turned out that we got in the short line and that was it.$$Okay. All right, that's an interesting story. (Laughter) It's just a matter of the shorter line.$$Yes.