Dr. S. James Gates, Jr. is the Brown Theoretical Physics Center Director, Ford Foundation Professor of Physics, an Affiliate Mathematics Professor, and a Faculty Fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies & Public Affairs at Brown University. He is an American Theoretical Physicist, internationally known for his work in supersymmetry. Dr. Gates was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 and is the first African American Theoretical Physicist recognized in the 150 year history of the organization. President Obama honored Dr. Gates with the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony in 2013. In 2020, Dr. Gates and two graduate students used his previous methods and mathematical algorithms to solve an 11D supergravity problem that involved 4,294,967,296 functions. Dr. Gates is the recipient of the American Institute of Physics 2021 Andrew Gemant Award which he dedicated to Jones High School in Orlando, Florida. Jones High School Valedictorian Jim Gates, Jr. also offers an annual $1,000.00 award to the top student in math/science at Jones High School.
People who live in the Parramore District and who have come from the Parramore District, my message is: You have so much to be proud of, just dig into your history… excerpt from the Black History Month 2022 Orlando Remembered Presentation by Dr. Sylvester James Gates, Jr. on February 16, 2022.
Welcome to Orlando Remembered. For those joining us for the first time Orlando Remembered is dedicated to preserving the history and contributions of Orlandoans, past and present. Orlando has an outstanding history for leading the world in Physics. The sonar physicists working at the Naval Research Laboratory Underwater Sound Reference Division which started in 1941 as the Office of Scientific Research and Development at 4501 S. Summerlin Avenue wrote the Underwater Sound Measurement Standards for the World. Their pre-eminence recognized by the International Standards Organization. The work accomplished in Orlando by sonar physicists such as Mrs. Eva Raybun, Vincent Benedetti, and the brilliant Robert Bobber who wrote the textbook on underwater electroacoustic measurements and lectured at MIT is part of the technological heritage of our area. While these physicists have passed on, the work they accomplished here is in use now internationally by the United States Navy.
In 2013 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences becoming the first African American theoretical physicist so recognized in its 150 year history. President Obama awarded Professor Gates the National Medal of Science Award at a White House ceremony in 2013. In 2021, the American Institute of Physics honored Sylvester James “Jim” Gates, Jr. with the Andrew Gemant award presented to those who have made significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics. Gates was selected for “instilling a deep and humanistic love of physics in generations of students, being a steadfast ambassador of science policy and the history of physics, and his persistent dedication to communicating the wonders of the field.” Please join me in giving a warm Orlando welcome to Dr. Gates, who likes to be called “Jim” Gates!
Presentation by Dr. S. James Gates, Jr.
Listen: Part I (14:12)
The Class of ’69 at Jones High School
Thank you, can everyone hear me? [Yes!] Wonderful! I have been looking forward to this occasion… ever since Jane reached out to me informing me that the Honorable Judge Belvin Perry had actually spoken about our experience in the Chess Team back in the ’68 – ’69 period. And so, one of the things I did this week in research I went to various sources, and you’ll see that during the talk. And one of the things I looked at was a webpage on YouTube. For those of you who do not know about this, I’m trying to spread the news. There’s a webpage at YouTube that contains the history of the Parramore district. And we have our classmate Pamela Woodley to thank as one of the principal figures in creating the website. So if you haven’t looked in on it, please do so because you will be amazed at the new information about the evolution of our community, the community that most of us grew up in. It is looking at it from a historical timescale. So definitely want to give big props to Pamela. She’s there with her mask on, and also I understand there were other classmates involved, too. [Ann Brown] So you can see that the good works of our class continue. Now it’s how many years since we graduated? It’s amazing! We were told not to speak on certain matters by Ms. Goodwin. So we won’t say the number. Let me just say, “It’s greater than 50.” And we’re still here, still kicking. The class of ’69 at Jones High was an amazing group to be a part of and you’re going to hear about some of that in my presentation….
A lot of people on here know me so they’ll be able to catch me when I’m wrong and speak up. So this is a map of Orlando as you probably can tell. I just went online to Google Maps. I always look at Google Maps whenever I want to find a map of any place in the world. And as you can see front and center in this image, right to the left of I-4 is the Parramore District indicated. And, of course, those of us who know this area for the last 60 or even for some perhaps 70 years, know that a lot of change has occurred. For example, the old fairgrounds that used to be there when the fair came once a year is no longer there. It’s been replaced by the basketball stadium….
Orlando to MIT
When I first moved to Orlando, Orlando didn’t look like this. But you didn’t have to go far outside the city to find this. It was dominated by orange groves as all of us know. But after I left Orlando I went off to MIT. I am now starting my 51st year of teaching university students. This is a year picture from 1975 teaching Calculus at MIT. I have advised presidents. As a lot of you know, I was on President Obama’s Advisory Council. I met and know the current President of the United States. I also serve on the Maryland State Board of Education…
International Travels and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
I’ve piloted ships in the middle of Siberia. This is a ship that I piloted for about a half hour in 1990. I have flown planes in Australia. These are two planes I call my “Air Force” as you can see. I’ve been on safaris in Africa. This was a safari where I met this young lady in the middle whose name is Dame Burnell [Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell]. She is an amazing person! She was recognized with the so called Breakthrough Prize two years ago. It’s a three million dollar financial award so it’s bigger than the Nobel Prize.
Leadership Advisory for Science and Government in the United States and South Korea
I’ve had some of my writings cited by the Supreme Court. And the last time there was a big affirmative action case, one of my essays was included in the media stream and so it was cited by the Supreme Court making the decision. I’ve actually had the opportunity to help write laws of the United States. I like to cite the Schoolhouse Rock episode, that perhaps many of you will remember, how a bill becomes a law. Well, I was part of that process. And I’ve met the minister of South Korea on visits there. I’ve been part of the advising the Korean government on science.
And, I’ve done two commercials. [TurboTax featuring Dr. S. James Gates, Jr. and Verizon “The Gift” featuring Dr. S. James Gates, Jr.]
Books authored by S. James Gates, Jr.
When I was at Jones High, I know one of you commented that I did not get distracted because I knew what I wanted to do. I’ve written five books. You’ll notice the one in the middle is actually in Italian because it is not available in English. In the early 1980s I used to spend my summers in Italy. I had a 300 word Italian vocabulary at that time. My wife was surprised on our honeymoon to learn that I spoke Italian. At least I had the words. The grammar, the writing was awful. And so, a publisher actually helped, assisted me, to create this book for Italy in 2000.
Dianna, my wife…
That’s my wife, before she was my wife, this is Dianna, in the middle. And on the other side is, that’s a picture of Joseph Francisco, he’s now an American chemist. He was the President of the American Chemical Society. This is Dianna and me on our honeymoon in 1984. As you can see we made it to Paris. We hung out in Venice for a while. And so, it was a very interesting honeymoon. And then finally we’re still a family. And about ten years ago, I had the opportunity to take my kids to the Great Wall of China on one of my invitations to speak in Beijing.
My mom and dad…
And so, it all started with my mom and dad, really. This is a picture of my mother and father. A picture of my father in 1962. It was taken while we were living in El Paso, TX. I’ll come to that part of the story. This picture of my mother was taken in 1942. So, before I was in Orlando. Well, this is me when I was in second grade when I was a student in Huey Elementary School on Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. So I was born in Tampa, but I lived a number of places including Orlando, Cocoa Beach, Florida, San Antonio, and then El Paso in Texas and near Saint John’s Newfoundland in Canada. My biological mother died when I was eleven years old, so before I moved to Orlando.
So about a year after her death, my father remarried to Ms. Edith Bradshaw Gates and we moved to Orlando, Florida where my stepmother was a teacher at Hannibal Elementary School in Winter Park, Florida. By that time, I had, in addition to Hannibal Elementary, I had attended Huey Elementary, Travis Elementary, Fort Bliss Elementary, Logan Elementary, and Fannin Elementary School, the last one in San Antonio, Texas. The first four of those were in El Paso. If you do the calculations, I was going to a different school every year when I was in elementary school.
“The Mythology of Intellectual Inferiority”
At Hannibal, it was the first time I understood why there was a battle over race. All of my classmates were African American as were my teachers. This was not disconcerting to me. What made the strongest initial impression to me was how so many of my fellow students had accepted the mythology of their intellectual inferiority. This was my first time understanding that this was what was happening in the United States of America.
Battle of the Bulge Memorial at Lake Eola Park
If you go to Lake Eola Park, if you know exactly where to look, you’ll find that there’s a bunch of bricks that recognize the Battle of the Bulge. And as you can see right above that American flag there are the initials of S. J. Gates, Senior Staff Sergeant, Quartermaster Truck, Red Ball Express. I don’t know how many of you know about the Red Ball Express, but they were principally an African American transport during the Second World War. That is what my father did as he entered the U.S. Army. He had a 27 year long career. And so, unfortunately as I said, in ’63 my mom died and that’s what triggered my coming to Orlando.
“Are you from New York?”
So in Orlando, at Hannibal Elementary School it hadn’t been too bad. People talked about my strange accent because, you know, I don’t talk like most people from Orlando. In fact, kids used to say, “Are you from New York?” No, I’ve never been to New York City. This is definitely not a New York accent. This is just a washed out accent because of change in schools and places I lived and all those sorts of things. And you all remember, kids can be very mean when you don’t sound like they sound. So, you know, we got into some fights. The kinds of things kids get into from being different.
Jones High School
But when I got to Jones High it got worse at first. But I have to tell you, I was more intimidated by my classmates at Jones High than my classmates at MIT, quite frankly. That’s why I said I felt like I was on Mount Olympus among Olympian gods and goddesses. They were just amazing people. Everywhere I looked I felt so inadequate.
Listen: Part II (17:08)
So here’s our 1969 yearbook. Here’s the Honor Society on the left and the Student Council picture on the right. I was in the Honor Society and I’m not in the picture on the left, but I am in the picture on the right because someone was able to catch me. I hated cameras in those days. I still do, by the way, but I’ve gotten over the fact that people want me to be in front of the camera often these days.
“Have you met Philip Dunn? And is he smarter than you are?”
I had a nickname for this Chess Club. Mr. Patrick was my French teacher. And so, I decided to call the Chess Club “Le Chevalier Ajax”. And that was kind of a joke. And if you read French you might know what the joke was about. Here’s the comment from Judge Perry. Because apparently our Chess Team was active in both the years ’68 and ’69. And I didn’t actually remember that Belvin was on the Chess Team. But apparently from this comment of his, he was.
Jones High School Teachers
Jones High School Classmates
And here are some of my classmates that are just amazingly stuck in my head: Philip Dunn who taught me chess. Arthur Battles, who I’m still in contact with. Gwen Barnes, who many of you probably know. Jerry or Jerome Blackshear whose nickname was “Dark Gable”. He was movie-star handsome. Willie Campbell who was an amazing athlete. Rick Flagler, another amazing athlete. William Hollinger who supported me through many travail. Jackie Jenkins was my girlfriend in the 11th, and 12th grade. Denise Miller was a close friend. The right Reverend Robert Spooney was one of the people who both challenged me and became my friend.
My friend Alvin Thomas who unfortunately was murdered the year I went away to college, but was a really interesting person. Big, rough, tough looking guy, but if you got to know Alvin, you would recognize that his inside was cream puff soft. He was an amazing personality. And, then Robert Turner, who was an athlete who could play any sport you could name and probably some you didn’t know existed. Nadine Washington, a very close friend who I’m still in contact with. Bruce White, one of the leading members of our class, good at everything! Cassandra Williams, an amazing student, and the daughter of our English major, Ms. Williams. Charlotte Wilson, who was active in everything, and then, Inez Young.
There are so many of you who are just stuck in my brain, and I’ll never forget, who basically provided the foundation for me to go off and live that life that I told you about: advising presidents and speaking in China, and taking my wife on a honeymoon to Europe. All of that to a large degree is really due to the people I met at Jones High. Here’s Philip Dunn and Marcia, they were our king and queen during homecoming. Marcia hasn’t changed a bit I see. And so, as I said these are my amazing teachers at Jones.
Physics Class with Mr. Coney
I used to read comic books at Jones High in class. One day, Mr. Coney caught me reading and he tried to embarrass me. So he asked me a question, and without looking up from the comic book I answered it. He asked me a harder question, the same thing happened. Then he asked me a super hard question and the third time was the same. Now I don’t remember this. This story, Mr. Coney has told me many times after I graduated. But he said, after the third time he recognized I might become a physicist.
Jones High School Valedictorian
Now this is a program from our graduation. I was our valedictorian. As you can see, I had to give speeches. It is the first time I gave a speech before the public. Our classmate Curtis Rayam sang a song. Let me remind people that Curtis went on to become a professional opera singer. In fact, he was understudy for Pavorotti for a while. That shows you the magnitude of the talent that came out of Jones High. Curtis still teaches voice at Bethune Cookman and he has an affiliation with Rollins at least that was true last time that I spoke with him.
From Jones High School to MIT
Here I am, this inadequate skinny kid who loved to wear dark glasses because he was kind of shy and dark glasses could hide that fact. And I went off to MIT. I wrote MIT’s first thesis as Jane stated on a topic that has sustained theoretical physics for years. I went to Harvard for three years. I went to CalTech for two years. So my trajectory – Jones High, I started there- Jones High, MIT, Harvard, and CalTech. That’s my academic pedigree, folks. It’s grounded in Jones High.
American Astronaut and Physicist Ron McNair
I have a friend named Ron McNair, who died in the Challenger explosion. Most people don’t know Ron was a physicist. And during my graduate school time at MIT, he and I became very close friends. And he convinced me to try to become an astronaut. So I applied to NASA. And they had 3,000 applicants. I made a couple of cuts until they got to about 120. I went down to Johnson’s Space Flight Center for psychological and physical evaluation. At the end of the day, they told me I didn’t have the right stuff. So, I went off to CalTech to start working with two Nobel Laureate Physicists.
Dr. Jim Gates Presents $1,000.00 Award to Jones High School Top Math or Science Student Annually
I’m still connected to Jones High as many people know. Every year there’s an award given at Jones High for the best science or math student. And since 2004 when it started, I make sure that every student who receives this award also receives a financial check. And it’s a prize not a scholarship. I don’t care how they spend the money. I tell them that. This is to recognize what you have done in school already.
Mount Olive Church
Mount Olive, that was my church home. I like these Google Maps because I can show you my home location at 56 West Carter and then going to Church at the corner of Pine and Washington Street. My dad usually drove us there. There’s a picture of the old Mount Olive for those who might remember. It’s not there any more because the progression of the City of Orlando downtown growth has decimated a lot of the old Parramore District neighborhoods and that continues to this day. I remember in 1970, my father had been at some meeting of the city planners and he had seen the plans for what was destined to happen to this part of Orlando. And that’s part of the reason why in 1970 we moved from Orlando to Eatonville, Florida, because he knew what was coming.
Religious Training and My Reward Bible
Worship Services, Sunday School, Choir, Vacation Bible School, these were all parts of my Orlando life. I received very good religious training, unlike a lot of people I know. You know, Worship Services on Sunday, Sunday School on Sunday, Choir on Sunday, that meant Choir Practice on Wednesday, and Vacation Bible School during the summers. One summer there was a contest for which student could remember the most books of the Bible in correct order. Well, you know, I was into school stuff in those days. And I have a copy in my house to this day in Maryland of the Bible that was given to me as a reward for doing this recitation.
The Youth Center and L. Claudia Allen Senior Center
And, of course, there was the Youth Center. People my age know what this means. I had to walk for about, let’s see, it took me, it was about a 3 mile walk, until I got access to my dad’s car. But my brother Ronald and I were often at the Youth Center. In those days it was a place that you could go and DJ’s would play records. I think maybe it was a quarter to go in or maybe it was free I cannot recall. But I am sure that other people in this program will remember the Youth Center. It was a place for us to get together and dance! And boy did we dance! It’s now the Claudia Allen Senior Center. So, I wonder if some of the people who go there for activities now were dancing there as teenagers….
Orlando Public Library
And then I was employed at the Orlando Public Library downtown facility. I worked in Periodicals. When I told Jane this she was fascinated and delighted. This was my senior year in high school. This is how I earned money to put gas in my father’s car because I had it every weekend. And to buy clothes, because after all what young man doesn’t want to look dapper at that age. In those days, most of the clothes that we could buy as African Americans were along Church Street where there were a number of Jewish merchants who would sell to us. I worked as i said, in the basement of the public library building. After I graduated, my brother took that job and after he graduated, my sister took that job. So we were all employees of the downtown public library. It looked sort of like this back in those days.
Miss Velma’s Barber Shop
And then finally, I want to acknowledge Miss Velma’s Barber Shop. [Butler’s Barber Shop located at 600b Parramore Street ]. Now most of you probably won’t know Miss Velma, but when I was living in Orlando there was a barber shop on Parramore where I would get my hair done. And, I believe, the owner of the barber shop was a lady by the name, well, we called her “Miss Velma”. (I have to thank Jane because we were actually trying to track this down and the closest we could find was this Miss Velma was really, Wilma Holloway, not Velma Holloway.) But all the kids that went to her barber shop, we always called her “Miss Velma”. And so, I remember Saturday afternoons going to the barber shop.
Barber Shop Wisdom
Now in recent times there have been movies about the culture of African American barber shops. You have all kinds of people come in, some prefer music, some say very clever and deep things. And, if you’re a kid, if you listen you can learn a lot. So I had that experience. I would walk from my house at 560 West Carter Street. In those days Carter Street went horizontally across the street and met Avondale. Interestingly enough, Miss Holloway actually lived on Avondale which is how my mother decided I would go to her barber shop to get my hair cut. We walked there down Conley Street… where I had my hair cut and listened to all the sage wisdom that came from the men principally in the barber shop….
The Parramore District Physicist
I have on previous occasions referred to myself as the Parramore District Physicist because most people don’t expect that a physicist would come out of the Parramore District. My classmate, Curtis Rayam could refer to himself as the Parramore District Opera Singer. Our colleague, Ronald Rogers, who is now deceased, could have referred to himself as the Parramore District Real Estate developer. Our colleague, Marcia Hope Godwin, who worked in Orlando City Municipal Administration for decades could refer to herself as the Parramore District City Manager. So the moral of the story is the Parramore District when I lived there was an extraordinarily complete community. There were doctors and lawyers that lived right next to people who were destitute. Our family wasn’t destitute, but we didn’t have a lot of money. And so, we could not afford to live out in Washington Shores which is where the African Americans with more means lived; or in Richmond Heights or Richmond Estates. We lived in the Parramore District. But as you can see from my career, it was just perfect to prepare African Americans to advise Presidents, to be on state boards of school boards, and argue with governments. To give talks all over the world, speaking on six continents. To get his children to see the world as children. Finally, my daughter has a PhD. as of last spring, and is currently at Princeton University. She is going to be a physicist and she studies black holes. Recently, the two of us appeared in a NOVA Science documentary, the Universe Revealed: Black Holes. So, I had the chance to be on a documentary with my daughter which is kind of weird. And my son is about two years away from his PhD. He’s going to become a biophysicist.
Orlando had a major part to play in every single one of those accomplishments. People who live in the Parramore District and who have come from the Parramore District, my message is: You have so much to be proud of, just dig into your history. Thank you.
Oral History Presenter: Dr. Sylvester “Jim” Gates, Jr.
Oral History Presentation Recorded by: Jane Tracy
Date: February 16, 2022
Place: Orlando Public Library (This hybrid meeting included virtual connection via Zoom with the presenter and participants.)
Orlando Remembered with Professor Sylvester James Gates, Jr. Pt. 1.
Orlando Remembered with Professor Sylvester James Gates, Jr. Pt. II.
Orlando Remembered with Professor Sylvester James Gates, Jr. Pt. II.