Dr. Richard A. Evans: Celebrating the Legacy of LSU Chemistry’s First African American Doctoral Graduate
Born in 1938 in Gulfport, Mississippi, Dr. Richard A. Evans attended primary and secondary school in a segregated school system, where “hand-me-down” books discarded by white schools "were the rule rather than the exception.”1 He described his teachers as “strong and dedicated,” but received no formal science education in a traditional classroom or access to science laboratories.1
After graduating from high school in 1955 at the age of 16, Dr. Evans enrolled in Tougaloo Southern Christian College, a private, historically black, liberal arts institution in Mississippi. Unsure of what career to pursue, Dr. Evans followed his father’s suggestion that he become a pharmacist.
Upon arriving at Tougaloo, Dr. Evans registered as a chemistry major and was assigned to advisor Dr. Saint Elmo Brady, who he later learned was the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in the United States.
Not only did Dr. Evans take his first chemistry course with Dr. Brady but he completed every one of his chemistry courses under Dr. Brady’s instruction. Dr. Evans wrote, “Saint Elmo was the kindling fire which was responsible for instilling hopes and dreams within us and which allowed us to step out and build further on the firm foundation that he laid.”1 Following the encouragement and inspiration of Dr. Brady, Dr. Evans completed his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1959 and earned his master’s degree from Western Michigan University in 1963.
Dr. Evans accepted an instructor position in the Department of Chemistry at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1962-1963. In the summer of 1963, he and his family moved to Huntsville, Alabama where he began working as an instructor in the Department of Chemistry at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, later named Alabama A&M University.
During his early years of teaching at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU), Dr. Evans applied to a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that funded summer research participation of college teachers of science, mathematics, and engineering. Louisiana State University was one of the select institutions to host this program, under the direction of Professor Robert Nauman. This experience led Dr. Evans to pursue his doctoral degree in chemistry at LSU.
In 1967, Dr. Evans was accepted as a doctoral student into LSU’s Department of Chemistry. Working under advisor Dr. James Traynham, his research focused on the solvolysis of cis and trans 2-methoxycyclooctyl p-toluenesulfonates in aqueous ethanol and glacial acetic acid solvents.
“Richard was a very pleasant person and I enjoyed having him in the laboratory,” stated Professor Emeritus James Traynham, who also praised Dr. Evans for his assiduousness in the laboratory.
“He was a truly loving, and friendly gentleman,” shared Professor Emerita Stella Elakovich, former Traynham graduate student and classmate of Dr. Evans. “A few years after we graduated and were settled in our academic careers, Richard visited me at the University of Southern Mississippi on his way to visit family. It was great seeing him…He was like that, a thoughtful, loving person.”
In 1971, Dr. Evans defended his doctoral dissertation, titled “The Influence of a Neighboring Methoxy Group on Solvolyses of Cyclooctyl Para-Toluenesulfonates,” and became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in chemistry from LSU.
His achievement was a remarkable milestone during the long journey of African Americans toward equality in the STEM fields. During the time that Dr. Evans pursued his doctoral degree, many black students at historically white institutions were often exposed to hostile campus environments, discrimination, and isolation.2,3 Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional, LSU was still an almost all-white campus and was not demonstrably integrated until the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Following graduate school, Dr. Evans worked in industry and held technical positions at Upjohn Pharmaceutical, All-Tile Chemical Companies, and Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Company. However, his passion for educating students, especially students of color, brought Dr. Evans back to AAMU.
Dr. Evans was among the first cohort of African American chemists-- many of whom had also been mentored by Dr. Saint Elmo Brady-- to train the next generation of minority scientists. This tight-knit network of chemists helped shape the academic training of two LSU Chemistry faculty, Boyd Professor Isiah Warner and Emerita Professor Saundra McGuire.
“I knew Richard Evans long before I knew that he was the first African American to receive a PhD in chemistry from LSU. He received his PhD three years after I received my chemistry undergraduate degree across town from Southern University,” shared Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Boyd Professor Isiah Warner. “Richard attended LSU with one of my Southern University teachers, Dr. Mildred Smalley, who was the second African American to receive a PhD in chemistry from LSU.”
“I met Richard Evans in 1983 when I became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Alabama A&M University. He was very passionate about both equity and excellence,” stated Emerita Professor Saundra McGuire. “He led the department’s efforts to ensure that African American students had the same educational opportunity as others to become exceptional scientists, engineers, teachers, and health professionals. He was an outstanding role model who inspired many students to achieve terminal degrees in their chosen fields.”
With an extensive 40-year career at AAMU, where he also served as chairman of the Chemistry Department from 1971- 1997, Dr. Evans improved the research capabilities and opportunities for minority scientists, as well as elementary and middle school science teachers, all over North Alabama. He was bestowed the honor of Professor Emeritus in 1998. Although he formally retired from full-time teaching, his passion for chemistry and education motivated Dr. Evans to continue teaching after retirement. His commitment to student success and science impacted the lives of countless aspiring African American scientists.
“Dr. Evans not only served as my undergraduate advisor and mentor from 1982-1986 at Alabama A&M University, but after I completed my master’s degree in Inorganic Chemistry from Clark Atlanta University in 1990, he hired me as Instructor of Chemistry at Alabama A&M," stated Dr. Edward Jones, former mentee of Dr. Evans. "But he insisted that I teach for one year, and then take a study leave to go pursue the doctoral degree. And that’s what I did, graduating from Michigan State University with a Ph.D. concentrating in Chemistry Education. What a mentor he was.”
Dr. Evans’ role as a leader and educator persisted outside of the classroom. Active in church ministries, he volunteered as a science tutor for a church-sponsored after-school program, and he used his skill for microcomputer design and construction to build the first student computer labs at his church and the AAMU campus. He also expressed his creativity in many ways, as a talented church choir member, aficionado of classic movies, and skilled cook whose signature dishes included a mean gumbo.
- Evans, R. A. (n.d.) “St. Elmo Brady; The Kindling Fire, From Tuskegee to Tougaloo.” Author’s private collected. Retrieved March 2020.
- Williamson, J. A. (1999). In defense of themselves: The Black student struggle for success and recognition at predominately White colleges and universities. Journal of Negro Education, 68, 92-105.
Wallenstein, P. (Ed.) (2008) Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
-Contributed by Gretchen Schneider and Saundra McGuire, April 2020