Break­ing down racial bar­ri­ers to outer space

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Ju­lianne Malveaux is an economist and au­thor. Her most re­cent book is “Sur­viv­ing and Thriv­ing: 365 Facts in Black Eco­nomic History.”

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

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