On May 13, 1961, in its first issue after Alan Shepard’s historic Mercury mission, the nation’s leading black newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News, ran a front-page column that asked a question on the minds of millions of Americans. “If you are like me,” wrote executive editor James Hicks, “as soon as you finished thrilling to the flight of the United States’s first man into outer space, your next thought was, ‘I wonder if there were any Negroes who had anything to do with Commander Shepard’s flight?’ ” History forced President John F. Kennedy to commit the country to explore space at exactly the same time it forced him to confront the movement for civil rights. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s Earth orbit, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Alan Shepard’s flight, the Freedom Rides with their attendant violence and imposition of martial law, and Kennedy’s man-on-the-moon-by-the-end-of-the-decade speech all happened within weeks of one another in 1961.
More than 50 years later, few people know about the first African-Americans in the space program. They performed mathematical and engineering work at a time when laws would not allow them to use the same bathroom as their white co-workers.
Among them was a small group of young African-American men who left Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in January 1964 to work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. These men did not lead protests or stage sit-ins (even when given the opportunity), but what they accomplished as NASA’s first black engineers was part of the civil rights revolution.
Kennedy chose federal employment as one of the tools to force integration at precisely the time that NASA and its contractors were creating 200,000 jobs in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It is possible that Kennedy took this route because he doubted Congress would give him the power to do anything greater through legislation. But Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who believed the root of racial injustice was southern poverty, believed that one way to achieve racial integration was to create jobs. He thought an activist federal government could pour money into the region and bring it into the nation’s social and economic mainstream. After Kennedy placed Johnson at the head of both his National Aeronautics and Space Council and the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, the vice president was well positioned to implement his plan. For many African-Americans who went to work for NASA, the new space program created employment opportunities that had never before been available to them.
There is a short list of steps NASA took to promote equal employment in the year before the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law: The agency created a contractors’ group in Alabama that used its money and influence to make sure African-Americans got space jobs. NASA hired Charlie Smoot, called the “first Negro recruiter” in official agency histories, to travel the nation persuading black scientists and engineers to come south. The Marshall Space Flight Center invited representatives of the historically black colleges to Huntsville in 1963, and a year later opened the agency’s college cooperative education program—in which students alternated semesters at school with semesters at Marshall—to blacks.
As a result, Walter Applewhite, Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield, Frank C. Williams Jr., and Morgan Watson arrived at Marshall to become the embodiment of Johnson’s plan for jobs in the South.
NASA’s Cooperative Education Program
When he was young, Morgan Watson says, he didn’t have a green thumb, but had what he calls “a greasy thumb”: He liked taking things apart and putting them back together. “I worked in a hardware store,” he says, “and the white store owner saw my report card one day and saw that I had good grades in math and science, chemistry, and so forth, and he said, ‘You know, you would probably make a good engineer.’ ” Watson didn’t know what an engineer did, “so I went to the library and started reading about [them].”
Watson eventually entered the new engineering school at the all-black Southern University–Baton Rouge. By the time Charlie Smoot arrived, the university faculty considered Watson and six other young men the most promising engineering students at the school.
The seven were given exams, though Smoot reports that none of the white students who found jobs at NASA through the Co-Op program were required to take them. Once the agency was convinced the students were eligible, they were hired.