Skip to main content
Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne’s first Black director reflects on science, inequality and a new honor

Walter Massey, the lab’s first Black director, looks back on his time at Argonne and talks about the inequities of minorities in science in light of a new Argonne Fellowship named for him.

There was no relief against systemic racism for Blacks living in Mississippi, or elsewhere throughout the South, during the 1940s. Jim Crow laws that took root throughout the South had found their way across much of the nation by the early decades of the 1900s, many of them aimed at segregation, whether in the military, marriage, public facilities, restaurants or schools.

Yet, in a world clouded by apprehension, fear and suspicion, bright spots prevailed.

I hope the people who receive the Fellowship, whether they stay at the lab or go elsewhere, see themselves as someone who can be a role model and a participant in increasing and enhancing the number of African Americans in science.” — Walter Massey

We had very good teachers in spite of the fact that the schools were segregated,” notes Walter E. Massey, a son of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, graduate of Morehouse College, physicist, executive, and champion of science education and the arts, among many other appellations.

Massey also shone brightly as the first Black director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Walter Massey, with then-President Jimmy Carter, polished Argonne’s image with the Department of Energy, selling the lab as a first-class facility and a regional resource. Massey helped start funding efforts for the Advanced Photon Source and nurtured Argonne’s growth as an interdisciplinary lab. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

For Massey, it was an excellent experience, one that immersed him in the joys of science and learning. It was like being in a giant candy store,” he recalls of the opportunities to observe and discuss research being conducted on campus.

And the business acumen that he acquired while at Argonne proved critical, as he later navigated one of the nation’s largest banks through the corporate and federal regulatory miasma that was the financial crisis of the early 2000s.

Argonne would also provide the perfect setting to further his goal of providing science education to minorities — perhaps a nod to the teachers he admired in those segregated schools — students hungering for an opportunity to reach farther than their circumstances might allow, but without the means to get there.

Science rises above

Born into the crushing racial environment” that was Hattiesburg in 1938, Massey was spared some of the worst direct hate of the day, finding assurance in his mother — herself an educator — and mathematics, and the closeness of the community in which he grew up.

Even later, throughout his academic and early professional years, science and education proved something of a barrier from much discrimination for him, though it remained ever present.

Like almost every Black person of my generation, I had many episodes of aggressive, even dangerous, racial encounters with whites — I was almost shot in the back by two white policemen when I was in graduate school in St. Louis,” says Massey.

However, in physics itself and in doing my research, getting papers published, and promotions at Argonne and other institutions, I was very fortunate,” he adds. I had very supportive mentors and colleagues and I was a full professor at Brown University less than a decade after receiving my PhD. I speak with a number of younger Black physicists who seem to encounter many more barriers to their success than I recall that I had.”

At age 15, Massey was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend Morehouse College and the chance to escape Hattiesburg, once and for all. His bond with Morehouse, like many of the places with which he was affiliated throughout his life, would remain lifelong. President of the college from 1995 to 2007, he had an endowed chair named for him in 2018, and the college built the Walter E. Massey Leadership Center.

Shortly after earning a PhD in physics from Washington University in 1966, he conducted his postdoctoral research at Argonne, leaving in 1968 to join the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, he had a chance to work with students engaged in the social and racial issues embroiling college campuses across the United States.

But more pressing was the need Massey saw for pre-college science education among some of those very same students, many from the inner city. After a move to Brown University, he developed the Inner City Teachers of Science (ICTOS) program to get students interested early in teaching science in these areas, continuing a persistent theme of education for minorities that would follow him throughout his career.

Finding the upsides of a challenging role

In 1979, now dean of Brown University, Massey got the call that would lead him to Argonne and his distinction as its first Black director.

The significance of this new role was made very apparent to Massey when EBONY Magazine wrote a feature story on him, allowing him to see its potential for changing the conversation around race.

I know it was significant within DOE because I could see later on how having somebody like me in the room made a difference when they talked about issues, diversity in particular,” he says.  I also know that it made a difference to people at Argonne and other laboratories to have an African American at the top.”

No doubt, Massey also found comfort in the fact that the DOE was promoting the role of the national labs in science education, directly funding Argonne’s Department of Educational Programs.

Those programs allowed us to do outreach to communities around the lab, to bring youngsters to the lab on weekends, and also to do some outreach in Chicago,” he recalls. So, we became better known and appreciated in the Chicago area.”

But if he wanted to keep education outreach alive, he would first need to make a strong case for the survival of Argonne’s nuclear energy program and, more importantly, the lab itself.

Massey joined Argonne during a transitional time in politics that pivoted on conflicting energy policies and perceived redundancies in the national lab system. In 1979, Jimmy Carter was president and not an advocate of nuclear energy, the foundation on which Argonne was built. And to further complicate the issue, the Three-Mile Island meltdown occurred less than a month after Massey accepted the position, thrusting nuclear energy into the national political debate.

On top of that, rumors abounded that the DOE planned to shut down one of its labs, and Argonne — thought to have outlived its usefulness — was rumored to be on the short list.

Where many would have cut their losses and gone in a different direction, Massey doubled down and promoted Argonne’s decades of expertise in nuclear through a campaign to develop the fast breeder reactor, an innovative technology for fission energy.

Massey’s bold moves and productive conversations with Carter might have won the day for Argonne, but the president lost his bid for a second term and a whole new set of energy policies were enacted when President Ronald Reagan took the White House.

Uninterested in alternative energy sources, like solar and nuclear, President Reagan reduced funding and with it, jobs. Massey would have to lay off 800 people — he’d only had to lay off one other person, Laura, while he was at Brown — an act that gave him pause.

I did not forget the lesson I learned in Laura’s case,” he writes in his new book, In the Eye of the Storm.” You’re impacting the lives of human beings, people with real-life issues. Laying off 800 hundred people wasn’t just an abstract operation. We had to be thoughtful.”

But his role as director wasn’t all politics and business, it played on his innate sense of curiosity. He had run of the place, and for Massey, that meant being able to learn new things and visit different facilities on campus.

Potential deferred in minority science education

In 1984, Massey left the director’s position to become vice president for research at the University of Chicago with oversight of Argonne, leaving the lab on more solid ground than when he started.

The things I feel very good about are, one, we did restore the significance of the nuclear program,” he notes. We built the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source, a major research user facility, and then we started the groundwork for what would become the APS.”

(The Advanced Photon Source, known as the APS, completed construction as a DOE Office of Science User Facility in 1995, and is now used by around 5,000 scientists every year.)

And always there was the education.

Massey was the last Black director of Argonne and one of only a very small number of Black directors throughout the DOE lab system’s history. It is a stark reminder of the racial inequities still affecting minorities in the sciences, particularly Black Americans.

Keeping track of the profession in which he started over 50 years ago, Massey permits that there have been some advances in the number of Blacks and other minorities in science, but feels that the onus to increase those numbers falls on those who can provide such opportunities.

I’m optimistic in many ways, because the numbers have changed and fields like biology and chemical engineering have increased significantly,” he says. But I don’t know why the numbers haven’t increased more than they have. My conclusion now is there simply hasn’t been the will by major research institutions to do what they’re required to do. I can’t find any other explanation.”

Also, I think young people from African-American backgrounds, economically disadvantaged backgrounds, want to go into these fields that represent a stable economic future, but they need financial support, among other things,” he adds. So, more scholarships, more internships, I think are necessary.”

And for the media it receives, Massey believes the present racial unrest could help focus attention on the need for more efforts to support Blacks and other minorities in STEM fields.

A life well-lived

Since leaving Argonne, Massey’s CV has amassed a myriad of positions and titles, some of them highly influential. He would come to remember his early days at Argonne when he became chairman of Bank of America, a role he hadn’t expected at all.

Like the political turmoil he faced when joining Argonne, the Bank of America position fell to him at a precarious time in American economic history; precisely when the fallout from the 2009 financial crisis was coming to a head. Those early lessons on how to run a business, effectively deal with people and manage a large budget helped Massey through the ordeal and successfully maneuver the bank from the brink of collapse.

In 2010, he satisfied his inclination toward the arts when he began an eight-year stint as president and then chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Massey also accepted positions on a wide range of executive boards over the years, from McDonald’s and the Mellon Foundation, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) to the Chicago and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras.

And ever the physicist, he remained deeply involved in and made significant impacts on science.

In 1989, Massey became the first Black president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where again he moved to elevate pre-college science education through an effort called Project 2061. In 1990, he was named director of the National Science Foundation by then President George H.W. Bush, and, among other things, secured the funding for the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), which first detected gravitational waves in 2016.

But Massey’s life won’t be reduced to a litany of science and business appointments. A family man, he and wife, Shirley raised two sons, Keith and Eric, in Chicago and wherever else work took him around the country.

And despite his devotion to education, he played hooky from school, like many a teenager, and used some of that time to learn the alto saxophone, gigging around Hattiesburg with his best friend Ralph. He later took to song and dance, performing in community productions and surprised himself at how well he could carry a tune.

Now add to that, author, with the recent release of that new book, In the Eye of the Storm,” that reflects on his time as chairman of the Bank of America, and serves as the first in a series of autobiographical volumes intended to focus on the many and varied aspects of a rich, full life.

This year, Argonne honors that full life with the creation of a new early career Fellowship in his name. The three-year Walter Massey Fellowship identifies and recruits exceptional scientists of color to conduct their own research at Argonne. Just one of the programs the lab is conducting to diversify its scientific workforce, applications open on March 29 and the first Fellow will start in October of 2021.

Massey seems as excited about the opportunity as if he were a recipient. For him, it represents a chance for someone to delve deep into a scientific question they always have been fascinated by and know they have the resources, both human and technological, to help find the solution.

For students of color, he hopes it represents both an opportunity and a responsibility.

I hope the people who receive the Fellowship, whether they stay at the lab or go elsewhere, see themselves as someone who can be a role model and a participant in increasing and enhancing the number of African Americans in science,” says Massey, that they will see it as something that they will take on as part of their professional obligation, in addition to their research.”

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.