Jesse Bethel

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Jesse Moncell Bethel was born in New York City, New York on July 8, 1922. He was born to Jesse M. Bethel and Ethel Williams. His father left the home when he was only six months old and his mother died when he was only three and a half years old. Being an orphan now, he was raised by his grandmother in Arkansas. He then moved to Oklahoma where his family sharecropped cotton and cornfields. Bethel attended elementary school while in Oklahoma and later graduated from Booker Washington High School there too. Bethel attended Tillotson College in Austin, Texas. He graduated there with a Bachelors of Science degree in chemistry. He later attended graduate school in 1944 at the University of California Berkley. Bethel’s life changed when he became only fourteen years old. At fourteen he watched 27-year-old attorney Thurgood Marshall defend a young black accused of murder in Hugo, Oklahoma. Marshall was able to reduce the young man’s sentence from death to life in prison. Marshall became Bethel’s idol. Marshall was a main reason Bethel dreamed on becoming a civil rights lawyer. Another reason for his dream was his son, Jesse Jr.. Bethel first began his college career at Tillotson College in Austin, Texas majoring in pre-law on a scholarship. This all changed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States entered World War II. Bethel read on a bulletin board that Mare Island needed chemists. This made Bethel switch his major from pre-law to chemistry. In 1944, one month after his college graduation, Bethel moved to Vallejo with his wife Claudia Nichols, who also was his college sweetheart. He moved to Vallejo in search of the chemist job at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard he learned about while attending college. A chemist vacancy at Mare Island available because another chemist left was given to Bethel. Bethel was now the first black chemist at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. For over thirty years Bethel worked on the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. One supervisor, on the grounds that his college wasn’t accredited (although it was) didn’t promote him. Bethel then made the choice of transferring to the nuclear power division. In the nuclear power division Bethel eventually became chief chemist. Bethel said, “I was discriminated against at the shipyard. I overcame it.” As chief chemist in the nuclear power division he analyzed material used in reactor plant construction, nuclear propulsion plant systems, and worked on radiochemistry on nuclear submarines.

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