CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Virgil Matthews dreamed of winning a Nobel Prize in chemistry. He made great grades. He earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago, nurtured a passion for research, rubbed elbows with some of the brightest minds in the field.
He landed at Union Carbide in South Charleston as the company's first black chemist.
Arriving here in 1954, he couldn't stay at the Daniel Boone Hotel or eat in any of Charleston's popular restaurants. His move to Carroll Road in South Hills jolted the all-white neighborhood.
As a longtime member of Charleston City Council, he broke factional barriers, battled urban renewal projects that displaced blacks and low-income whites and pushed for passage of a state human rights bill.
At 85, the keen chemist's mind hasn't faltered. In vivid detail, he can tell story after story about the changes he championed as a leader in the quest for racial equality.
In a salute to Black History Month, an icon of the Charleston civil rights movement reflects on the journey he began as a "Negro" in segregated Alabama.
"I was born in Lafayette, Ala. My dad was principal of a Negro high school and my mom was a teacher there.
"It was a real small town, 2,500 people. I was going to the segregated school, but I played with the white kids who lived around us. I had to go by their school to get to mine. My grandmothers explained to me that this is the way it was.
"When my sister was born, my mother died. They thought she was having labor pains, but she had appendicitis, and her appendix ruptured. I was 2. My dad couldn't raise me, so he took me to my mother's parents' home. Later, in 1932, my father got killed in a tornado.
"My aunt in Chicago had adopted my sister. They decided my grandmother, who must have been 75, couldn't take care of me, so they took me to Chicago in 1943. I was 14. I grew up with my sister and my cousin.
"I had two aunts, my mother's sisters, and they lived together, and they married brothers. We lived in the same big apartment. They lived in a district that was practically all black although schools were integrated. The principal was white and the assistant principal was black.
"I had already finished ninth grade when I got there and should have gone into 10th grade. They said I'd been going to a segregated school in Alabama, so I didn't know anything. They put me back in ninth grade. I knew all that stuff, so I made excellent grades.
"My aunt wanted me to go to work. I worked in a grocery store, and that kept me from being in a lot of sports. Every day after school and Saturdays, I had to go to work.
"I took physics in 11th grade and I did really good. When I took chemistry, I liked it, too. When I graduated in '47, I was valedictorian out of a class of 331.
"I wanted to go to college. My uncle wasn't going to pay for it. In Chicago, they had the William J. Cook Scholarships for male graduates in Cook County. Nobody from my high school had ever gotten one. I had to take all kinds of tests and had all these interviews. They gave me a four-year scholarship, but it was only for $650 a year.
"Where could I go to school on that? At the state university, the University of Illinois, the tuition was only $40 a semester. They had a two-year branch in Chicago. So I went there. I started in pre-med. The first time I had to cut up a frog, I was out of there.
"My adviser suggested chemistry. I had to transfer to Champaign-Urbana for my last two years. Second semester, I didn't have enough pay for food, but you could get jobs in the white fraternity and sorority houses. So I got a job in this Jewish fraternity waiting tables.
"My senior year, this guy said I should work for the white sorority because they had great food. So I worked breakfast, lunch and dinner there.
"The sorority girls would come down for breakfast, and the black waiters would be in the dining room, and they would throw their robes open, and they wouldn't have anything on.
"The year before I graduated, I had one of the top chemists in the country, Carl Marvel, for an adviser. Marvel asked if I wanted to go to graduate school. He said he could get me a teaching assistantship at the University of Chicago. I graduated with high honors, about a 4.5 average.
"In Chicago, I was the only black in chemistry. I worked in the registrar's office in the summer and taught the undergraduate class.
"I had two advisers. One of them got the Nobel Prize for carbon-14 dating, finding out how old things are by using carbon-14.