Their appointment was trumpeted by the black press: “Negro College Youth To Boost First Moongoer Into Orbit?” was the headline in the Chicago Defender. The article’s first two sentences were a snapshot of African-American hopes of achievement through the space program: “They say there’s a good chance that a Negro may be the first man on the moon. But even if he isn’t, there’s a good likelihood that Negro collegian scientists will be performing their intricate duties at the launching pad as they wave the moongoer off.”
The men warranted the attention because when they entered the Co-Op program, they became the first African-Americans engineers at NASA in the South. They also increased by five-fold the number of black professionals at Marshall, which at the time employed about 7,300 people. “I don’t even think there were any [black] clerical workers,” Watson recalls. There were “some groundskeepers and janitors, but as far as professionals, there were none.”
The white press took notice too. The New York Times called Frank Williams, the first black student hired, “a social pioneer.” It also called him “a symbol of the desires and frustrations of space agency officials in their attempts to achieve some degree of racial integration.”
The idea that the Space Age might help usher in better race relations became a subject of scientific inquiry. In the spring of 1962, NASA made a grant to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to study “the relationships of space efforts to US society.” The report proceeded, in part from the popular conception that NASA, in the academy’s words, represented “a new era of equality according to ability.” There was a belief that “communities with advanced types of industry, with their people employed in research laboratories and in the development of new engineering techniques, should display a high level of social innovation.”
The academy sent sociologist Peter Dodd to the space communities to find out if it was true. In multiple visits to Huntsville, Florida’s Cape Kennedy, and the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, Dodd spoke to NASA workers and administrators as well as municipal officials, city planners, newspapermen, ministers, educators, social workers, housewives, and teenagers.
Studies suggested that space workers had “high levels of education, which are known to be correlated with liberal views,” and that “their youth and geographic mobility have exposed them to liberal opinion.” What Dodd found was exactly the opposite, especially in matters of race. In Huntsville and at Cape Kennedy, he said, “There seem to be no evidence of strong pressure for Negro rights, nor of strong sympathy among technologists for civil rights.” To NASA workers, he found, “the Negroes appear to be an outside group presenting demands which would have to be dealt with in some way, but which are no concern of theirs.”
When the seven students from Baton Rouge stepped off the bus in Huntsville, they did not find a community that welcomed them. “There were no apartments or hotels or anything that would allow us to live there,” Watson says. “Everything was segregated.” Charlie Smoot found them rooms in homes in the black community.
Such segregation existed notwithstanding a clash two years earlier. During the months that Dodd was visiting Huntsville, the sit-in movement was sweeping America, and it did not spare Huntsville, despite its reputation as a place where “the Gospel of Wealth had more disciples…than did the Gospel of White Supremacy.” In fact, in Huntsville in 1962, two distinctly different impressions existed about the sit-ins’ impact and their severity. Ignored at the time by the local paper, the sit-ins barely registered with whites in Huntsville. Bart Slattery, Jr., a NASA spokesman, told a reporter from The Nation at the time, “We’ve never really had a problem [with race relations] here in Huntsville.” An unguarded comment made to the same reporter, however, illustrated the town’s unacknowledged racism. Asked why Huntsville was quieter than Birmingham, Montgomery, or Selma, Jimmy Walker, the manager of the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce said, “We’ve got a high class of niggers here for the most part.” While official reaction to the sit-ins was nowhere near as violent in Huntsville as it was elsewhere in Alabama, the town was no less resistant to change.
“ ‘Sit-Ins’ Finally Hit Huntsville: 23 Students Jailed in ‘Missile City’ ” was how the black Pittsburgh Courier headlined its January 20, 1962 story about the protests. “At last it has happened!” the paper said. “This famous ‘Missile City’—home of the mighty Saturn, the Redstone Rockets, Dr. Wernher von Braun, and the great Redstone Arsenal—has been hit by the sit-ins.” As in other places in Alabama, things got ugly rather quickly.
A story distributed nationally in the black press relates one racially charged incident: A few days into the protest, four African-American students, William Pearson, Leon Felder, Bertha Burl, and Mary Joiner, and a white NASA employee, technical artist Marshall Keith, walked into a Woolworth’s. Keith ordered a plate of eggs and pushed it across the counter to the black students. The Woolworth’s manager confronted Felder, who was eating the eggs Keith had ordered. “ ‘Want more salt and pepper?’ He tilted the shakers over the plate, smothering the food with condiments,” reported the Daily Defender. When Felder continued to eat, the manager started pouring ketchup all over the counter in front of the girls. When they quietly handed out tissues to one another and started wiping up, the manager grabbed the plate of eggs and smashed it on the floor.