A native of Washington, D.C., Hawkins was orphaned at an early age and raised by a sister. Yet in the middle of the Depression he found enough family support and personal confidence to disregard the advice of well-meaning teachers who were convinced that an African American could never become a chemical engineer. Hawkins headed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to complete his engineering degree and then went on to receive a master's degree in chemistry at Howard University and a doctorate at McGill University in Montreal, where he specialized in cellulose chemistry. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University he was hired in 1942 by Bell Laboratories, where he was the first African American scientist on the staff. He eventually became head of plastics chemistry research and development and assistant director of the Chemical Research Laboratory.
Hawkins was an active leader in efforts to expand the nation's pool of scientific talent, as first chairman of the American Chemical Society's Project SEED (Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged)-created to promote chemistry among economically disadvantaged youth-and as a board member of several educational institutions. He was honored on several occasions for this work and for his contributions to polymer science, including the National Medal of Technology, for his invention and contribution to the commercialization of long-lived plastic coatings for communications cable that has saved billions of dollars for telephone companies around the world. This award was presented to him by the President of the United States just two months before his death.