Thirsty for knowledge

Esther Hopkins’ unquenchable drive to excel.

Dr. Esther Arvilla Harrison Hopkins didn't let the predominantly white male fields of science and public policy keep her from becoming a chemical scientist, lawmaker, and attorney. —Stacey Rupolo

The story of Dr. Esther Arvilla Harrison Hopkins, Ph.D., chemical scientist, lawmaker, and environmental attorney, is about African-American family grit and determination. It’s also about how well our country, at its best, works for its citizens.

Ms. Hopkins, 90, is gracious, definitive, and world-wise. She lives with her son, T. Ewell Hopkins Jr., and his family in Oak Bluffs. Ms. Hopkins talked with the Times about her life and the history of her South Carolina family’s journey north to opportunity 116 years ago.

Her story begins with her mother, Esther Small. Ms. Small didn’t know much about the world when she got off the boat that had carried her from a tiny backwater town, whimsically named Society Hill, S.C., to New Rochelle, N.Y., on Sept. 14, 1901. She was 12 years old, and had come north by herself.
Ms. Small learned that day who William McKinley was, and what a president was, by listening to fellow passengers buzzing about the assassination of America’s 25th president in Buffalo, N.Y. Ms. Small was a child then, unlettered and alone, who came north for a promised job as a maid to a New Rochelle family. She was a decade ahead of the curve of the Great Migration, during which 6 million black Americans came north between 1910 and 1970.

The fruits of labor

Ms. Small would live until 1971, to see her daughter graduate from Boston University (where she met fellow student and future Island icon Della Hardman), then collect two master’s degrees, a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale, a midlife patent law degree from Suffolk University, and a vitae of accomplishment enough for two lifetimes.

It’s good practice to judge people by what they do rather than what they say, and the life work of Esther Small, the first of her generation to be fully free from slavery, shows that, by God, she was going to see that she and her family would do better. And they did do better, in an American story of how it’s supposed to be.

Ms. Small settled in Stamford, Conn., and became the first in her family to graduate from high school; to own a home; to become, in her early 20s, arguably the first woman driver in her town. During the second decade of the 20th century, Ms. Small drove her employer and his family from New Rochelle to California and back. She met and married George Burgess Harrison of East Orange, N.J., who was also “in service” as a chauffeur. Parents of two boys with Esther in the middle, the Harrisons devoted themselves to expanding their children’s horizons and dreams.

It is evident that the modeling from her parents is an inextricable part of Ms. Hopkins’ accomplishments.

“Because of my parents, I grew up feeling that whatever I chose to do, my parents would let me do it. I enjoyed music, and they got me piano lessons. My first teacher wasn’t very good, so they got a better teacher, one that white girls had. I had a chance to go to live theater in Stamford. We were poor people, but there are always things you can do.

“For example, I lived in the public library. It was scary at first, all that glass and brick, but what I wanted was in there, so that’s where I went,” she said.

Ms. Hopkins evolved from being a really smart kid in Stamford, Conn., during the 1930s Depression to becoming a chemistry whiz with multiple advanced degrees in organic chemistry and biophysical chemistry, and fashioning a successful career at American Cyanamid and Polaroid Corp., before a second career as an attorney with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Life teaches

Her world wisdom is derived from the struggle of a black woman professional in the mid-20th century, and it was honed further in political life as a selectman and committeeman in the hurly-burly of Framingham, a town where politics is a blood sport.

Esther Hopkins’ story does not include overt racial conflict, no fire hoses or police batons, but rather, the more nuanced reality of a black woman in a white, male-dominated academic and professional world in the time before and after our country codified equal rights for all in 1963.

Minority women are described as being in a double bind, having to compete in white male environments. “We used to talk about which was more difficult, being a woman or being a minority. I was at a symposium on the subject in 1975 with mostly black and several Asian women who believed that Asians faced greater challenges even than black women. I’ve always thought that it doesn’t matter which is more difficult. You have to deal with both,” Ms. Hopkins said last week.

Race wasn’t an overwhelmingly conscious part of her growing up in an integrated blue-collar Stamford neighborhood. While young Esther knew she was a black kid in a largely white world, she remembers an inclusive social tone. “I remember feeling segregated but not discriminated against. We went to neighborhood schools, and there were two or three black kids in every class. It was pretty inclusive,” she said.

As she describes it, Esther was a kid thirsty for knowledge, with parents who fed her. “I started kindergarten at 3 because I could pass the tests they had. I know I could count to 31 because my father would put me on his shoulder and read the numbers on the big calendar we had in the kitchen.

“And my father wanted us to understand music. He would get records of classical music for us to listen to. He didn’t know much about it, but he wanted us to know about it,” said the woman whose considerable piano and organ skills would lead her to meet T. Ewell Hopkins, a Stamford minister in search of an organist, in the mid-1950s. They married in 1959, and were married for 42 years before his death in 2001.

There were three Harrison kids. The family could afford to send one to college. “My mother insisted that we all get a high school diploma. On the day my older brother graduated, he handed his diploma to my mother and said he was done with school,” she recalls. Esther was next up, and she was ready. Ms. Hopkins excelled in high school, and had set her sights on medical school, a lofty goal for black women in the early 1940s. She shared her goal with a white woman at a YWCA luncheon, who suggested she might consider being a hairdresser. “I remember thinking, ‘Why would she think I should be a hairdresser? No. I’m not doing that,’” she said.

Reaching for knowledge

Yale was Ms. Hopkins’s first choice, but the school wasn’t coed in 1943, so she applied to Boston University for premed and was accepted, did well, then applied to BU Medical School, but was rejected. “I learned later there was a quota: Two blacks were accepted. A military serviceman and a woman who already had a master’s were one and two. I was No. 3,” she said with a wry smile.

But chemistry had her by then. “I remember the first day in chemistry. It was wonderful, not music but like music; it all flowed together in perfect order for me. I could see it,” she said. She went to Howard University for a master’s degree. “They offered the organic chemistry specialty I wanted,” she said.

She had met John Mitchell, a native Liberian pursuing a doctorate at BU, during the 1950s. They married, and had a daughter named Susan, a childhood diabetic who died in her adulthood. The marriage ended after a few years. “We were not right for each other. African men are unlike African-American men in that they expect women to be meek. I was not meek, and I was not moving to Liberia,” she says.

So Esther and Susan went back to Stamford, and it was on. Marriage to Ewell, birth of young Ewell, a job at American Cyanamid, a second master’s (1962), then a Ph.D. (1967), both from Yale, closely followed by a job offer from Polaroid Corp. in Cambridge, where she supervised the emulsion lab in which the magic of instant color photos was brewed, and then, in 1977, she became a patent attorney.

The Hopkinses settled in Framingham; Ewell continued his ministry work, young Ewell ran track, and Esther, a member of the town FinCom, was sweet-talked into running for selectman after retiring from her legal job at the DEP in 1999.

A certain restlessness

Today, Esther Hopkins is a joiner. She joins the organizations important to her life. “There was a certain restlessness, that I wanted to see more, do more,” she says. “In college, my father limited me to three organizations a year. If I wanted to join another one, I had to drop one,” she laughed. Joining is one thing, being active is another. There is not space here to list her organizational work and accolades, but go to historymakers.org./sciencemakers, one of two black history projects in the Library of Congress, to view video interviews with Ms. Hopkins and to read several pages of her involvement in and accolades received across the full spectrum of American life.

Two examples stand out. The first is that Ms. Hopkins was named in 2011 as a Fellow in the American Chemical Society, a nearly 150-year-old body with 160,000 members. Ms. Hopkins is one of about 1,000 members to receive the fellowship honor.

The other is her role as a Boston University board member, handling faculty affairs at BU during the constantly controversial 25-year reign of President John Silber from 1971 to 1996, who chivvied and drove the university — and its often reluctant faculty — to become a world-class place of learning. “Most of the board were not academicians; primarily they were businessmen, and didn’t want to do the faculty affairs job. I understand academia. I was happy to do it,” she said.

The Importance of civility

How she did it was to use civility as the currency of communication. Ms. Hopkins is not bombastic or confrontational. She is civil.

“Civil discussion is important, no matter what the setting, academic, political, or social. It’s how things get done. ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ is a good way to manage discourse,” she said. The state of public discourse right now is troubling to her. “People are saying unpleasant, nasty things to each other. Our new president talks in word salad, not in complete sentences. No one else was as willing to be so negative. The longer it went on, the worse it got.

“A group of women told me recently that they are scared by [the tone of public discourse]. I reminded them that black people have felt that way all their lives.

“But using power that way won’t work. It didn’t work ultimately for people like J. Edgar Hoover [former FBI director]. People backed away from him, and they will back away from President Trump,” she said.

Self-determination

Asked for her advice to young women, she said, “Don’t believe it when someone says, ‘You can’t.’ Take as much math as you can. Young girls, black and white, allow themselves to be scared. Leave your comfort zone. All science areas require intellectual rigor, and if you don’t develop it in high school, then a year of college can be a $60,000 mistake. Be prepared when you get there.”