Sheila Minor Huff the Career Biologist: Another Hidden Figure
Have you seen #SheilaMinorHuff trending on Twitter? A photo inspired the hashtag.
Circulating on the Internet during Women’s History Month was a photo of thirty-eight scientists attending the 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales. The photo’s caption failed to identify the lone woman and African American. “Illustrator Candace Jean Andersen was researching a picture book on the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972” when she came across the photo, according to Jean Mansky writing for Smithsonian.com. Anderson engaged in some Internet sleuthing and with the help ofthe Smithsonian, she was able to identify the mystery woman as Sheila Minor Huff.
I must give full disclosure. Huff is my former neighbor and friend. We served on the homeowner’s association board and reared our boys in the same neighborhood in Fairfax County, Virginia in the 1990s. We met because of our mutual interests in addressing and mitigating the policing of Black and brown boys in our community.
Huff’s voice carries throughout the room. Never timid. Never mincing her words, Huff became a biologist in a field dominated by white men. Despite the challenges, she excelled, achieved, and made a difference.
By the time the photo was taken in 1971, negotiating predominately White and male terrains was nothing new to Huff. She was born in segregated Washington, DC during the Second World War and later attended the predominately White and male American University in Washington DC in the mid- to late-1960s “There [was] a noticeable dearth of non-White faces” at American University during the 1960s, writes Gregg Sangillo for American University’s website. As a Black woman scientist, Huff experienced challenges on her career path.
The same tenacity that she displayed being active in her community is the same savviness that she used to climb her way to the top of the federal civil servant system. From her first job after undergrad as a GS-5 Biological or Animal Technician with the Fish and Wildlife Service to her retirement as a GS-14 (Step 10) Environmental Protection Specialist at U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance, Huff held steady to her goals.
“I’m a product of DC public schools,” Huff proudly pronounces and wants everyone to know. Tracked for college and a graduate of McKinley Technical High School, Huff developed an interest in science as a child.
“My parents wanted me to go to medical or dental school. I thought about becoming a veterinarian.”
Huff almost didn’t become a biologist. She entered American University in 1965 majoring in medical technology—with a minor in chemistry—because it was a “safer” major. Huff wanted to attend Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. “I wanted to be a Bennett woman,” Huff claims. But, her father had other ideas. He told her that she needed to “learn the methods of the white man’s madness.”
Huff became intimately acquainted with prejudice during undergrad while completing a one-year practicum at Sibley hospital in DC. She was learning how to draw blood when an older white woman told her to “get your fucking nigger hands off of me.” The woman screamed. The White nurses ran into the room.
Was Huff shaken?
Perhaps. But the undergraduate Huff garnered the strength to tell the White woman, “You’re the one in here dying.”
Although the staff reprimanded Huff for her response to the woman, Huff decided that she did not want to collect human specimens. She wasn’t cut out for medicine. She changed her major to biology, put in another year in undergrad, and graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Science in biology.
Several elements coalesced to support Huff’s quest to become a scientist.
“I was the child that everyone would run from because I was always trying to collect a specimen,” Huff chuckles.
Her laugh is infectious as she recounts her childhood growing up in a Black middle-class community in northeast Washington, DC.
She recalls an environment that nurtured her curiosity and ambitions.
“We had colored patrolmen, colored teachers. My birth certificate identifies me as ‘Colored.’ We had made progress from being ‘Negroes’ to being ‘Colored.’ My grandmother was a washerwoman. My grandfather was a carpenter. But because of segregation, my grandfather couldn’t work on any White construction projects or join the union.”
Huff’s father served in the US Army and the National Guard. Her mother attended the historical and landmark Miner Teachers College in Washington, DC for two years. She began her career typing in the “colored girls” typing pool and eventually made her way to the Executive Office of the US President in the Old Executive Building (OEB).
Huff recalls loving to visit her mother in the OEB. “Mom had a fireplace in her office. Her office was huge, featuring French provincial furniture.”
You can only imagine how such an austere environment whetted Huff’s appetite for entering the world of work.
Although Huff’s grandparents never finished high school and her parents were not college graduates, her grandmother and mother were avid readers. In Huff’s community, Black people pursued education and regarded it as a form of empowerment because of this country’s history of denying African Americans an institutionalized education.
Huff credits her parents for introducing her to what was considered to be non-traditional activities for African American children. She swam. She took music lessons. She played the piano at the graduation ceremony at Charles Young elementary school where she was a student. Her parents and teachers encouraged her love for science. She received her first microscope from her uncle Sterling.
“When the other kids in the neighborhood were outside jumping Double Dutch, I would be watching the insects. I liked to look at them under a magnifying glass. I’d get a mayonnaise jar, collect insects, and place them in the jar.”
While her parents, grandparents, and elementary and middle school teachers fueled her passion for studying flora and fauna, it was her 10th-grade biology teacher who tacitly let her know that she could pursue the sciences.
“My 10th-grade biology teacher was a Black woman who had a master’s degree in biology, Melba Robinson. She was like a drill sergeant. She referred to each student as mister and miss. For example, she referred to me as ‘Miss Minor.’ We talked to each other in a respectful manner. She taught us how to dissect a frog. And, she told us that if we messed up our frog, we wouldn’t graduate. She also had us learn the names of the instruments that we used.”
After graduating college, Huff got her first professional job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She laughs, “Dr. Jones’s White secretary did not want to pick up his specimens. So, he needed to hire someone else to pick up his specimens.”
Despite Huff’s credentials, Dr. Jones offered her the position as a GS-5 clerk/typist, the same grade as his secretary.
Huff turned down the job because of the grade and classification. Dr. Jones subsequently created a biological animal technician position for Huff. She accepted the position.
At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service located at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, Huff learned how to arrange, measure, and order the specimens. This process was crucial because it enabled Huff and her colleagues to locate any specimen the scientists requested.
When the technology changed, Huff became solely responsible for entering data for more than 4,000 specimens.
“I made two errors,” Huff laughs.
It was during her tenure working with Dr. Jones when she obtained a travel authorization to attend the 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales where the picture of her with the all-male scientists that set the Internet ablaze was taken. At the time, Huff worked in mammals.
“I wasn’t attending the conference carrying Dr. Jones’s stuff,” Huff explains. “And, contrary to what’s been circulating on the Internet, I was an observer just like Dr. Jones was.” But, Huff admitted to photo bombing the picture. And, we are happy that she did. Without this photo, her achievements as a biologist might have died in the annals of federal government.
Huff seemed nonplused about current attempts to discredit her presence at the conference and in the photo. After working for over 30 years in a White-male-dominated profession, Huff has developed a thick skin. Disputing her history as a biologist by Internet trolls hardly concerns her.
Huff recalls having to deal with sexual and racial harassment while striving to accomplish her professional goals. Once a scientist thought that he was being nice by addressing her as a “very nice negress.” He told her: “I could have said nigger.”
While riding an escalator, this same scientist put his hand up her skirt. Huff yelled at him to “take your hands off my butt right now.”
These incidents caused her to look for another job. Huff found a professional home at Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies in Edgewater, Maryland. She felt that the culture of the watermen made working in Edgewater more tolerable than at the Museum of Natural History.
“The watermen weren’t mean because they needed each other to survive. The environment wasn’t directly hostile.”
What was Huff’s secret to success?
“No matter how low the task, I did not say ‘no’ to any task assigned to me,” Huff recalls.
One of the highlights of her career was traveling to the Soviet Union to attend a conference of scientists in Moscow in 1972.
“We were there before President Nixon’s Moscow Summit,” states Huff. “The Russians thought that I was Angela Davis.”
In the Soviet Union, she noticed that there were women scientists. The division of labor by gender did not seem reinforced in the Soviet Union as she noted women operating heavy equipment.
While Huff’s experience in the Soviet Union was rewarding, she was glad to get back home and returned to her undergraduate alma mater, American University where she enrolled in graduate school.
During President Carter’s administration, Huff received a Schedule C political appointment and moved to Chicago. “The Carter people were trying to be inclusive,” remembers Huff.
During her appointment Huff served as the special assistant to the assistant secretary to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She could have obtained a GS-15, which is “generally reserved for top-level positions such as supervisors, high-level technical specialists, and top professionals holding advanced degrees.” Huff decided to settle for GS-14 because she felt she would have a target on her back as one of the few Black GS-15s. So, she reached her maximum level as a GS-14 step 10, which was the top of the grade.
In her capacity as special assistant to the assistant secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Huff traveled throughout the US meeting with governors. She recalled negotiating a solution to a problem with wild boars in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Someone had set the park on fire because the superintendent of the National Park was killing the wild boars that came on park service land. The local people weren’t allowed to enter park service land to retrieve the carcasses. Because wild boar hunting was a cultural practice in North Carolina and Tennessee where the park is located, Huff convinced the superintendent to use darts to shoot the wild boars and then call the local people to retrieve them. Huff’s intervention quelled the conflict between the government and the locals. The locals thanked her for her intervention.
Despite her credentials and accomplishments, Huff admitted that being a biologist wasn’t hard. The hardest thing was gaining the respect as a scientist by her peers. Her gender and race presented challenging impediments that she overcame through persistence.
Huff’s advice: “Go someplace where you are welcomed [and] needed. Interview prospective employers as much as they interview you. Go eat in the cafeteria after a job interview. Check out the climate. Use different restrooms. Sit and listen to the conversations. Are the employees anxious, uptight, and depressed? What are they talking about?” Huff recommends that one’s ability to observe and assess the environment, a skill that she honed as a scientist, remains crucial to your professional survival. In observing and assessing, you can draw informed conclusions and take the appropriate action.
Solving the mystery of the lone African American woman in the photo taken at the 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales has garnered a response from US Senator Kamala Harris. At least two Twitter users—@jtevans70 and @theblushbloom—drew correlations between Huff’s story and that of the “Hidden Figures,” the African American women mathematicians who acted as human computers and were crucial to the success of NASA’s space program.
As a retired scientist, Huff spends her time belly dancing, reading, attending St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom, and caring for her grandchildren. All the whoopla and media attention intrigues Huff, but she is taking it in stride. I think that a young adult biography of Huff is in order. What do you think?
© 2018 African Voices Magazine, Michele L. Simms
Michele L. Simms-Burton, Ph.D. is the editor of Abri Art and Culture. She is a former professor of American literature and Afro American Studies. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from the George Washington University. She has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan and Howard University. You can find her writings in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hemingway Review, The Detroit Free Press, and Chronicles in Higher Education. For information on Ms. Simms-Burton, visit www.ariaartandculture.com