He made history as a black oceanographer, but faced racial hatred in the early days
We always say it: time flies. This was never truer than when I got a call from my friend Evan FordSaying he will retire from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after 50 years.
He worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Atlantic Ocean and Meteorological Laboratory in Virginia Key, and was the first black oceanographer to explore the deep canyons of the Atlantic Ocean in a two-person submarine in 1979.
I immediately had a flashback to one of the first times I spoke to Evan. I had already been on the job for seven years when I had the opportunity to tell the world about this brilliant young oceanographer, who happened to be black. It is always refreshing to write about the progress our younger generation has made, especially young black men who have succeeded despite discrimination and other obstacles.
As I was writing this column, I thought about the late Katherine Johnson and the other black women at NASA who were called human computers because they were so amazing. “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three black women, particularly Johnson, who were instrumental in formulating the mathematical calculations to launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
When I first heard the story and watched the film — decades after I interviewed Evan — I was angry and proud. I was angry because the contributions these black women made were largely hidden, not just from black Americans, but from the entire country. I was proud that women excelled, against all odds, including discrimination in the workplace.
Although the situation is much better now, the path to success for many black professionals, from the arts to the sciences, has always been paved with obstacles and pitfalls. I felt that it was, and still is, my duty as a black journalist to tell their story, including Evan’s.
Born and raised in Miami
Evan is a product of Miami. He was born at the Old Christian Hospital in Overtown on May 11, 1952. The middle child of three siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, he grew up in the old Punch Park area of Miami Gardens, where he attended Rainbow School. Park Elementary. Although his parents were teachers, Ivan said he did not do well in elementary school.
“I was a C, D and F student at the time,” he admitted. “Our parents got married while they were in college. My dad graduated and worked days as a science teacher and as a custodian at night so he could send our mom to Florida A&M University to get her degree. I missed my mom terribly when she was out of school. I think that’s why I didn’t achieve Good results in primary school.
By the time he entered middle school, his grades had greatly improved. But it was the fire that destroyed his family home when he was 15 that made him realize that his life had great importance.
“I remember sitting on the floor with second-degree burns on my face and thinking: ‘I could have died and no one would have ever known I was here.’ [on earth]”” he said. “That’s when I decided I was going to do something important in the world. At that time, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was going to make my life count for something.
Carol City Football Coach Master Mentor
At Carol City High School, Evan joined the band and played football. He said it was the late coach Vernon Wilder, who played for the team as a student and recovered a fumble that led to it winning a state championship in 1977, who told him he was smart enough to go to college.
“I quit band but stayed on the soccer team because I wanted to get a scholarship,” Forde said.
While at Carol City High School, he took a course in environmental oceanography: “I’ve been a fan of Jacques Cousteau since I was about six or seven years old. I never missed the show ‘The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau.’
In oceanography class, he learned that Columbia University had one of the best oceanography schools in the country. By then, Evan said he was almost valedictorian. He was accepted to Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. He attended Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1974 and a master’s degree in 1976.
Evan began his career at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the Atlantic Ocean and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami during the summer of 1973, while still in college. In addition to his barrier-breaking expedition aboard the submarine Nekton Gamma in 1979, Ivan has become a leading authority on marine geology and geophysics.
Today, Evan remains one of just a handful of black oceanographers in the country.
Face discrimination and racism
“There was a lot of discrimination when I started my career,” he said. “One of my supervisors once told me he couldn’t promote me because people would say he promoted me because I was black.
“When we went out on the research ships, it was worse. Even though I was in charge, the white workers wouldn’t follow my orders. I had to use the students on board to help do the research. It was painful, and sometimes a little scary. “Everything, here I was on a boat in the middle of the sea with white men who hated me just because I was black. I didn’t know if they were part of the Ku Klux Klan or what.”
During his career, he conducted research in many scientific disciplines, including marine geology and geophysics, atmospheric chemistry, and marine biology.
He has worked extensively in science education and has taught at the graduate level at the University of Miami. He also taught an oceanography course to middle school students which was featured in Ebony Jr! “Science Corner” magazine for three years. He also developed a severe weather poster for NOAA that was distributed nationally and is estimated to have been viewed by 8 million schoolchildren daily.
Upon his retirement in December, Richard W. Spinrad, Ph.D., Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmospheric Administration at NOAA, acknowledged Evan’s contribution in a letter he wrote to him:
“…Your departure from NOAA marks the end of an era and leaves us with big shoes to fill. …You have been a strong and engaging leader of our laboratory as well as a caring mentor to both your team and young scientists discovering their careers. We thank you To always create a team spirit and create a positive work environment that enhances creativity and partnership.
In addition to his work with NOAA, Evan, a divorced father to son Justin J. Ford, MD, MD, board-certified gastroenterologist, internal medicine, and obesity physician, has found time to serve as PTA President, Scoutmaster, youth basketball coach, Sunday School teacher, Church Webmaster, Neighborhood Crime Watch Chairman, and Special Olympics South Florida Photographer for 12 years.
The 71-year-old says he will continue to work on projects to help create a better environment for humanity.