Barry B. Hampton began working at the Smithsonian in 1912 as a mail clerk. As he delivered the mail, he became enamored with the natural science research being done in the different departments. He got his opportunity to contribute to that work in 1926, when he was appointed as a laborer in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians to assist then curator Doris M. Cochran. At the time, they were the only two employees in the entire division. Hampton’s duties at the time would be akin to what are now performed by curatorial assistants or even collections managers. He was charged with maintaining the collection: topping off specimen jars with preservative, preparing and cataloguing specimens, preparing specimen loans, assisting visiting researchers and helping assemble exhibits.
Despite his numerous contributions, Hampton had to fight for recognition and a proper title indicative of his work. After roughly 20 years working to maintain the collection, he was still only a “laborer.” Cochran agreed that he should be named “museum aide” as she genuinely deemed his work worthy of promotion. However, her correspondence to supervisors limited comparisons of his work to other African Americans at the museum. Perhaps this was indicative of her own implicit bias, or she knew that comparing Cochran’s work and title to his white counterparts would do more harm than good for their argument. It was, after all, the 1940’s and African Americans were still largely viewed as second class citizens at best.
Despite entreaties by both Hampton and Cochran, it doesn’t appear that the promotion was granted. In 1949, Hampton filed an “Appeal from Classification Allocation” which succeeded in finally gaining him the title of scientific aide after 23 years of service. He retired shortly afterward in 1954, after a total of 42 years at the Smithsonian. This is illustrative of the fact that scientific institutions have not been buffered from the sociopolitical concerns of society. Many frequently assert that scientists and science should not be burdened with societal concerns, that their work is completely separate and unaffected by such outside influences. However, society dictates what questions are asked, what research is funded and even who does science. We see here and in many other cases, a person doing scientific work for decades having to fight for years to be recognized in that capacity. Even today, many people still have to assert “I am a scientist, and this is what a scientist looks like.”