Breaking down racial barriers to outer space
On April 12, 1961, Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space. The timing was significant because the Russians had accomplished something the United States had not. Indeed, they were far ahead of us in the space race.
A month after Gagarin circled the moon, President John F. Kennedy spoke to Congress about sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth “before the decade is out.” He asked lawmakers to commit between $7 billion and $9 billion over the next five years.
Houston was chosen as the site for the Manned Spacecraft Center, with the land donated by Rice University. But by charter, Rice did not admit African American students, which jeopardized the use of federal funds for the project. The university tried to amend its charter, but alumni sued to block this. Rice won and admitted Raymond Johnson to its graduate program in math; he became the insitution’s first African American student. (Johnson was the first African American to get a degree from Rice and the first African American on the faculty at the University of Maryland. In 2009, he returned to Rice to teach mathematics with an endowed chair.)
The space program galvanized the nation, yet Jim Crow laws, ossified attitudes and basic racism stood as barriers to African American participation. Thus, while the space program helped create tens of thousands of jobs, African Americans had limited opportunities to obtain them. Some NASA leaders rationalized that they couldn’t find qualified people (have you heard that one before?), but it was indeed difficult to recruit well-educated African Americans to come to the segregated South, where even finding housing was a challenge. At the same time, few African Americans had degrees in engineering, chemistry or mathematics. None of the 468 electrical engineers working in Mississippi, for example, were African American. Most other states were not as bad, but the underrepresentation was still disturbing.
In “We Could Not Fail,” Richard Paul and Steven Moss weave civil rights history with space history, Southern history with African American history, and use the careers of 10 African American men who “could not fail” as the foundation of their story. They are careful to point out (perhaps too often) that these men were not activists or marchers, but quiet revolutionaries who made as much progress by working in NASA offices as the astronauts did by going to space.
These men’s histories are both inspiring and tragic. Few were able to work to their full potential, and most did not get deserved promotions. Co-workers used crude racial slurs, often to a person’s face. The men were sometimes shunned by colleagues and certainly could not socialize with them in Texas. Many had a longer commute than their white counterparts, partly because nearby housing was segregated, although NASA sometimes intervened to encourage integrated housing. Paul and Moss discuss the men’s coping strategies, which ranged from using humor to simply ignoring racism. When asked, some of them said that they were too busy to pay attention to racism or that they did not experience it.
Of the 10 men profiled, most worked behind the scenes, but Ed Dwight, the first astronaut trainee, became something of a celebrity among African Americans. He graced the covers of African American newspapers and magazines and encouraged young people to consider space careers. Dwight’s prominence reminds us how important it was for the black news media to cover stories ignored by the majority press. Black newspapers, especially the New York Amsterdam News, scolded NASA for its slow pace in integrating. Unfortunately, Dwight, whom Kennedy had encouraged to apply, resigned from the program in discouragement in 1966.
As NASA expanded, Vice President Lyndon Johnson wanted the agency to do more for African Americans. Employment was not the only focus — there were efforts to provide opportunities for African American contractors. Progress was slow, however. When the notoriously racist Sen. John Stennis invited NASA Administrator James Webb to speak at the Jackson, Miss., test facility, NASA policy compelled Webb to decline. Stennis appealed directly to the White House, but Webb did not speak. In another instance, NASA astronauts were invited to a Time Inc. party at the Petroleum Club in Houston but were not allowed to attend because of the club’s whitesonly policy. Clearly NASA hoped it could push segregationists, but segregationists often pushed back.
NASA also used its resources to address the scarcity of African American workers at the root. It developed a partnership with Miles College, a historically black college to which the agency loaned black engineers as instructors. It also offered a few internships for African American students.
This comprehensively researched book is replete with fascinating details about ways in which the civil rights movement influenced the space program. The 10 pioneers — Julius Montgomery, Theodis Ray, Frank Crossley, Ed Dwight, George Carruthers, Delano Hyder, Richard Hall, Clyde Foster, Morgan Watson and George Bourda — bring history to life. I would have liked to know more about them, but “We Could Not Fail” is intended to focus more on the space program than on them individually.
This book is not the kind of absorbing read that you can’t wait to finish but rather a detailed, scholarly work best digested a chapter at a time. As such, it makes an important contribution to African American history.
Air Force Capt. Edward J. Dwight Jr. was the first African American to enter the astronaut training program.
WE COULD NOT FAIL The First African Americans in the Space Program By Richard Paul and Steven Moss Univ. of Texas. 300 pp. $30