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Lilia Abron

Chief executive officer and chemical engineer Lilia Ann Abron was born on March 8, 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was a school principal and her mother was a school teacher who taught art and geography. Abron attended Lemoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee where she received her B.S. degree in chemistry in 1966. She earned her M.S. degree in sanitary engineering from Washington University in St. Louis in 1968. After receiving her M.S. degree, Abron worked for the Kansas City Water Department. She went on to become a research engineer for the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago. Abron received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Iowa in 1972, the first African American woman to do so.

After completing her education, Abron served as an assistant professor of civil engineering at Tennessee State University and held a joint appointment as an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University. In 1975, she joined the faculty of Howard University as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering while serving as a consultant to local engineering firms. Abron founded PEER Consultants in 1978, an environmental engineering consulting firm that provides solutions to the problems of contamination of the environment. Her firm had contracts with the Superfund program including the Boston Harbor cleanup; the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy through its Hazardous Waste Remedial Actions Program. In 1995, Abron founded Peer Africa with the mission of building energy-efficient homes in post-apartheid South Africa. Peer Africa’s Witsand iEEECO (Integrated Energy Environment Empowerment-cost Optimization) Sustainable Human Settlement won the American Academy of Engineers 2012 Superior Achievement Award.

Abron is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the International Women’s Forum. Professionally, she is a member of the Water Environment Federation, American Water Works Association and American Society of Civil Engineers. She also serves on the Advisory Board for the College of Engineering, University of South Florida. Abron has been active in in community serving as the president of the Washington DC chapter of Jack and Jill of American, Inc., and as a board member for the Baptist Home for Children. She was an original participant of the 1975 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) study, “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.” In 1999, Abron was the recipient of the Hancher-Finkbine Alumni Medallion from the University of Iowa; in 2001, she was awarded the Magic Hands Award by LeMoyne-Owen College, and in 2004, she was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. Abron has three adult sons.

Lilia Ann Abron was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 17, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.113

Sex

Female

Archival Photo 1
Interview Date

6/17/2012

Last Name

Abron

Maker Category
Marital Status

Divorced

Middle Name

A.

Occupation
Schools

LeMoyne-Owen College

Washington University in St Louis

University of Iowa

Search Occupation Category
Archival Photo 2
First Name

Lilia

Birth City, State, Country

Memphis

HM ID

ABR01

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Tennessee

Favorite Vacation Destination

Paris, France

Favorite Quote

I won't worry about that today, I'll worry about it tomorrow.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

3/8/1945

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Short Description

Chemical engineer Lilia Abron (1945 - ) , the first African American woman to receive her Ph.D. in chemical engineering, founded PEER Consultants, an environmental engineering consulting firm.

Employment

Kansas City water department

Tennessee State University

Vanderbilt University

Howard University

PEER Consultants

Peer Africa

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Lilia Abron's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron talks about her mother's growing up and education

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron describes her mother's family resemblance

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Lilia Abron talks about her mother's role in the family

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Lilia Abron talks about her family as land owners

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Lilia Abron describes her father's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about her grandparents

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron talks about her father's education and how her parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron talks about her siblings and her parents' personalities

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron describes her earliest childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron talks about her childhood neighborhoods

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Lilia Abron describes the sights, sounds, and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Lilia Abron talks about the racial climate of Memphis when she was a child

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Lilia Abron talks about her childhood career interests

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about her elementary school experience

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron talks about the structure of her childhood schools

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron talks about her family's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron talks about her family's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement- part 2

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron talks about her academic standing during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Lilia Abron talks about her social life during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Lilia Abron talks about her decision to attend Lemoyne Owen College

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Lilia Abron talks about her experience at Lemoyne-Owen College

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about famous people that visited Lemoyne-Owen College

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron talks about the music of Memphis and her peers from college

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron talks about her peers during her college years

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron talks about her decision to major in chemistry

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron talks about her decision to pursue her graduate studies at Washington University

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Lilia Abron talks about her experience at Washington University

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Lilia Abron talks about what a sanitary engineer does

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about environmental justice and her professors at Washington University

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron describes the social unrest after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron talks about her mentors and research at the University of Iowa

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron talks about bottled water

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron talks about her post-doctoral employment opportunities and African American women in STEM

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Lilia Abron talks about her experience teaching at Howard University and how her career trajectory shifted

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about how she met her husband

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron talks about her business, PEER Consultants

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron talks about environmental racism

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron talks about her consulting projects from her business, PEER Consultants

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron talks about PEER Africa and her work in Africa- part 1

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Lilia Abron talks about PEER Africa and her work in Africa- part 2

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Lilia Abron talks about her awards and her future plans

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about her business partner, Douglas Guy

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron talks about the dynamics of working in South Africa

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron reflects on her legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Lilia Abron talks about the business operations at PEER

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Lilia Abron reflects on her career and talks about the challenges of owning a small business

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Lilia Abron talks about her family

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Lilia Abron talks about how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Lilia Abron describes her photos

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$6

DAStory

5$5

DATitle
Lilia Abron talks about her decision to pursue her graduate studies at Washington University
Lilia Abron talks about PEER Africa and her work in Africa- part 1
Transcript
So then I saw these signs on the bulletin board one day for fellowships in sanitary engineering. What is that? And then about that time I, I had read Silent Spring and trying to figure out you know what to do. And the thing with Silent Spring just kind of upset me as to what we were doing. But then I, I hadn't connected the two and then I saw this. So I said well hmm, interesting. So I wrote and asked them what it was all about and they were recruiting. They were out looking for minority students cause this was beginning to be the heyday when white schools were going after black students and all. So they sent a group down to recruit me and that was so funny. My mom had to make sure that they were going to look after me. I mean I am grown, graduating from college and she still wants to know if I'm going to be safe on campus and are they going to look after me, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. But at any rate, so I got the full fellowship, full ride at Washington University. And I had read up about the curriculum and what they did and then I was beginning to put the Silent Spring together with what they did and oh!, so that's how that happened.$$Okay. All right, so Washington University in St. Louis, this is 1966. You start--now oh, before we leave Lemoyne, were there any special teachers that, like that you remember there that were either a mentor to you or really impressed you there?$$My chemistry professor, Dr. Buehler.$$Doctor what?$$Dr. Buehler, B-U-E-H-L-E-R, pushed me, kept me going, kept me moving. Dr. Williamson, she was the English professor and a linguist, probably the first black to get a Ph.D. in linguistics. She and my mom by the way were at Lemoyne together. She was younger than my mother. So I think when my mom was graduating she was just coming in and she was a Delta also. But she was really four years, I was there, fantastic. And she was doing a book on black speech and one of my jobs is I transcribed a lot of her tapes. So that was really fascinating watching her write a book. She wrote a book, never met anybody who wrote a book. And Mr. Whittaker he was, who was a music professor but he had taught me piano lessons for whole--all twelve years. So those are the people that really stand out. Professor Gibson who was the biology professor got really upset when I got the fellowship from Washington University and he just frankly told me to my face that I would never make it. But that's you know you had, still had stuff like that at Lemoyne even though you wouldn't know it. But you, you know--I wasn't--$$(Unclear).$$I wasn't a biology major. I wasn't--he just said you won't make it. You won't, you know. I don't know some people are like that. Only his students were the best and his students all went to Meharry [Medical College] and he handpicked who he considered were the best students. I wasn't one of his handpicked--I never wanted to be cause I didn't want to major in biology. And I think those are the ones that really stand out.$Now you started PEER Africa in 1995, right?$$Well '94 [1994] and we incorporated in '95 [1995].$$Okay. Tell us how that got started.$$Well I had wanted to go international started around 1990 and I had looked at going into Liberia because we thought the war would be over. Didn't know that it's still not over but at any rate a friend of mine, I was on the advisory board for the business school at Langston University and 1993 he called up one day and said oh, I'm going to have our next board meeting in South Africa. And I said you're going to have your next board meeting from Langston University B School in South Africa? Yes! I said, okay I guess we'll go. And I had already kind of started thinking about this was '93 [1993], ninety--this was '94 [1994], '94 [1994] and Nelson Mandela was president so I had kind of started thinking about umm, wonder if there is the opportunity that I might be able to do something in South Africa. So I said okay. So I went to the board meeting and while I was there for those two weeks for the board meeting I started looking around on the possibly of working, doing, see how we could do working. I wanted to do classical environmental engineering cause South Africa had said they wanted tourism to be one of their number one attractions and the country is very contaminated from all of the mining they do over there. They--it's a very rich country and they have--you name it, the minerals they have. They have--they're the fifth largest export of coal in the world, they have diamonds, they have gold, they have platinum, they have everything. So we had started talking to the Chamber of Mines about doing clean up work for them and President Mandela had instituted this housing program where he had set aside 5 percent of their GDP to get his homeless families into formal housing. So you had all of these housing projects going on and I'd ride up and down the street and see all of these and I kept wondering why they weren't doing them correctly with so many houses they had to build, why weren't they taking sustainable design into consideration and passive solar. And now this was before it became the buzz word that it is now, this is in '94 [1994], '95 [1995]. But I still felt with 5 million home, come on, or 5 million homeless families, surely you got to do this thing right and they weren't. So I went to Secretary O'Leary who was head of Energy under bill Clinton and they had this--$$It was Hazel O'Leary.$$Huh?$$Hazel O'Leary.$$Hazel, yeah. And they had this program that they had set up called Gore-Mbeki Bi-National Commission and six months, every six months they would either come to the U.S. or the U.S. would go to South Africa and this was a cooperation between the two vice presidents which they thought were going to become the presidents and to help them get up on their feet after apartheid. So I went to her and said you know one thing, sure would like to demonstrate passive solar and all this building they're doing. So she said well I'll give you a little money. I said what's little? Why don't you build one? So we became part of what they call the housing program under the Gore-Mbeki Bi-National Commission. So we were able to put up a couple of pallet houses and so that's how we got started in South Africa was through--we had already you know made some inroads and everything but that relationship really helped to push us over the top and to help us get solidified.