HEATH — As a college student in 1960, Oscar Johnson fought for civil rights while also learning as much as he could about chemical engineering.
Much has changed since he went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, but the Boeing employee still pursues civil rights and breakthroughs in chemistry. And, he’s been honored for his ongoing efforts in both areas.
Johnson, 80, of Columbus, works as the chemical technology lead at the Boeing Guidance Repair Center in Heath, where he’s worked for 25 years. He previously worked in films research and development at Dow Chemical Company in Granville, where he invented a special blend of polymers for labels on plastic bottles.
2021 Black Engineer of the Year Modern Day Technology Leader Award
U.S. Black Engineer and Information Technology, a publication devoted to engineering, science and technology and promoting opportunities in those fields, selected Johnson for its 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Modern Day Technology Leader Award.
“My nomination for an award caused a reaction of disbelief,” Johnson said. “The award was an acknowledgement by my peers of the value of my hard work and my contributions in the workplace.”
As a materials and process engineer, Johnson tests chemical compounds, materials and processes used in the navigation systems of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable submarines, and aircraft to determine their safety and suitability in extreme conditions.
He also conducts the monthly safety inspections that helped keep the Boeing labs injury-free for five years. In 2016, he improved the site’s safety and technology capabilities by helping secure funds for new technology in the labs that saved time and money.
Boeing spokesman Josh Roth said, “He’s in a leadership role. He’s doing great. He hasn’t missed a step. It’s incredible.”
‘I’m still working to ensure young people have opportunity’
In 2006, Johnson was recognized by the International Civil Rights Center and Museum for his participation in the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in.
Johnson said his family’s history helped give him the courage to join the protest, which led to his arrest.
“My grandmother’s experience as the daughter of a slave and having to drop out of school after the third grade to work in the fields was one impetus,” Johnson said. “Also, the teachings of my Sunday school instilled a strong sense of self-worth in me.”
Asked how he would assess the country’s progress on civil rights, Johnson said his focus is on today’s youth.
“I’m still working to ensure young people have opportunity,” Johnson said. “It’s a challenge, but one thing I’ve committed myself to is giving back because so many people gave back to me.”
Johnson has continued working to improve access and equity for others. He once served on a city council as a racial equality liaison and today engages with the Boeing Black Employees Association and Boeing Generation to Generation Business Resource Groups.
‘I was learning in an environment that demanded I be engaged’
In a story written by Rosemary Lane and Josh Roth in Boeing News Now, Johnson explains how his interests in chemistry and civil rights became intertwined when he was in college.
Following is an excerpt from their story:
“I realized I was learning in an environment that demanded I be engaged,” Johnson said. “I was constantly trying to make things better because, as one student put it, ‘Oscar, you get a degree, but where are you going to work?’ I wanted to make a better world for African Americans to live in by removing barriers.”
Johnson carried his chemistry books with him to sit-ins at the Woolworths’ lunch counter, joining in the historic Greensboro sit-in to desegregate the five-and-dime store — a peaceful protest that catalyzed sit-ins across the country.
After being arrested during protests and, later, in sit-ins at segregated theaters, Johnson learned his chemistry books offered a good distraction from the jail’s rough floors and helped him keep up on his studies.
‘I would like to see more young people pursue a career in STEM’
Johnson said his interest in chemistry dates back to helping his grandmother do household chores.
“Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, my grandmother taught me how to mix and heat cooking grease to create lye soap,” Johnson said. “Watching the chemical process unfold sparked my lifelong interest in chemistry and chemical engineering.”
He hopes to instill that same interest in young people today, especially in science, technology, engineering and math.
“I would like to see more young people pursue a career in STEM,” Johnson said. “That’s the reason I participate in STEM outreach programs at Boeing. I try to be a window to what could be available to students if they choose to be in STEM — to ensure young people have opportunity.”