King appreciates her success all the more because of the way she earned it. By 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were illegal, she had already graduated high school. She and other sharecroppers’ children in her hometown of Moultrie, Georgia, had gone to grammar school at the local Baptist church, where they were encouraged to get an education, she said, “so we could work out of the hot sun.”
During Black History Week, her class had learned about African American role models, including George Washington Carver. If they studied hard, their teacher said, they could be like him.
Despite those early lessons, King planned to major in home economics at Clark Atlanta and then return to Moultrie to teach at the local high school. After all, George Washington Carver was a man, and in those days, she said, “there were certain fields of study that were appropriate for girls.” To fulfill her major requirements, she needed to take a year of chemistry—where she fell in love with the laboratory work. When the chair of the chemistry department told her she could be successful in the field, she thought back to George Washington Carver and decided to become a research chemist. The chair told her she would need to go to grad school.
King attended UChicago on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which at the time supported graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees. “You cannot imagine what a confidence builder this is for us country boys and girls in the rural South,” she said, “to have champions like [the fellowship foundation].”
She was interested in physical chemistry, specifically calorimetry: the study of the changes in energy in a system based on heat transfer. (She was also learning about heat—or lack thereof—during the Chicago winters. In her first letter home, she asked her mother to send long underwear.) King worked under O. J. Kleppa at the University’s Institute for the Study of Metals, now known as the James Franck Institute.