NASA played a key role in the integration of the workforce of the south during the early 1960s, and a recent book tells the tale of how that came about and of the African Americans who were key participants in that movement. We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program (University of Texas Press, 2015) was written by Richard Paul and Steven Moss. Moss spoke about the story last week at the Museum of Flight.
It wasn’t altruism that drove NASA. After President John F. Kennedy made his man-to-the-Moon speech in May of 1962, the agency and its contractors suddenly needed about a quarter of a million engineers and rocket scientists to achieve that goal. They couldn’t afford to discriminate. In fact, Moss pointed out that Vice President Lyndon Johnson made a speech in Seattle in 1962 about NASA recruiting the best talent regardless of race. JFK knew getting the Civil Rights Act passed would not be a speedy process, but he made an executive order to address discrimination in federal employment. It was essentially the first mention of equal employment opportunity.
Policy doesn’t always make it to the streets immediately. Moss said that Houston Power and Light actually turned off the electricity to the Pelican Island Destroyer Base near Galveston, Texas because the utility didn’t approve of the nondiscrimination order. LBJ leaned on the local congressman, noting that if a naval base couldn’t be powered, Houston might not fare well in its efforts to land the Manned Spaceflight Center.
“The Navy got its power very quickly, and in September Houston got its space center,” Moss said.
NASA gets on board
At the start of this process in 1962 NASA was near the bottom of federal agencies in the hiring of African Americans. That began to change quickly, but again it took political pressure. In May of 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy discovered that, despite a large African American population in Birmingham, Alabama, only 15 African Americans held jobs with the federal government there. Kennedy leaned on Johnson, who leaned on NASA administrator James Webb, who leaned on Wernher von Braun, who was head of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“Over the next six weeks NASA does more to engage in the hiring of African Americans than it has at any other time in its history,” Moss noted. In October of 1964—just before the presidential election—Webb threatened to move management personnel out of Huntsville over the Alabama’s discriminatory policies.
“Qualified people—blacks and whites—refused to work at Huntsville,” Moss said. “They refused to go to Alabama because of its laws, because of its violence—not just its reputation, but the very real violence against people.”
They also had trouble keeping people there.
“The turn-around at Marshall was pretty high compared to some other places, because people just did not want to be there once they saw it,” Moss said.
Von Braun became something of a “point man” on civil rights, according to Moss. He made a visit to Miles College, a historically black institution, in November of 1964 for the opening of a new science building.
“Von Braun goes there and it is a very bold statement,” Moss said, “that (NASA) is going to stand up for civil rights and for the African American community.”
The other great stand happened at Marshall. Governor George Wallace was gearing up for a presidential run, and organized a tour of the facility in Huntsville, bringing 200 Alabama state legislators with him. Von Braun made sure to be there to speak against Wallace’s segregationist policies.
“He tells them that Alabama’s hope for industrial growth is jeopardized by its racial policies,” Moss said, “and he tells them that attracting and keeping the best people would succeed if Alabama offers the same opportunities as other states.”
“The only federal official that could stand toe to toe with George Wallace was Wernher von Braun,” Moss said.
Moss noted that von Braun likely didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. Through co-author Paul’s conversations with Mike Neufeld, a historian at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and specialist on von Braun, and their own research, they concluded that von Braun was completely driven by launching rockets, and would do what it took to keep that going.
Officialdom was slow to conquer Jim Crow and the Klan, which were still strong forces in the south. Much of the book is devoted to profiles of some of the African American pioneers who helped make it happen despite the barriers. Moss highlighted several of them during his talk.
Julius Montgomery was the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral. He was the first African American to sign up for classes at the Florida Institute of Technology, which at the time was known as Brevard Engineering College. He played a key role in integrating the college. Today FIT offers the Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award to African American students who make outstanding contributions to the community.
Clyde Foster promoted compliance with equal employment opportunity at NASA. He helped Alabama A&M in Huntsville start a computer science program. A great many of the African Americans who worked at NASA began their careers at A&M. Foster also convinced NASA to do advanced training in management there—before this it was nearly impossible for African Americans to get such training and advance their careers, because the sessions were held at segregated institutions or hotels.
Frank Crossley was one of the first black Navy officers, and was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering.
“Although he was never a NASA employee, the work he did with metals and with alloys is significant for NASA’s success,” Moss said.
Charlie Smoot was hired by NASA as a recruiter. As an African American he could visit colleges and bring real information to prospective students about what it was like to be black and work for NASA. He organized presidents of black colleges and universities to help build a pipeline of qualified students.
George Carruthers is an astronomer who built the first observatory ever deployed on another celestial body, a UV telescope used on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission.
Morgan Watson was one of NASAs first black engineers. Moss played a sound clip of an interview in which Watson gave what turned out to be the title of the book.
“We felt that the image of black people was riding on us as professionals,” Watson said. “We could not fail; we had go forward and do our best.”
“The pressure to succeed and the fear of failing was understood,” Moss noted.
In another clip Watson said that the space program changed the south by integrating African Americans into the workplace.
“By showing that there were black professionals that could do that,” he said, “it helped to break the walls down; it helped change people’s perception of black people in the south.”
As with the recent book Hidden Figures, Moss noted that the stories of the people he and Paul profile are not well known. In fact, they ran across cases in which the people’s own children or grandchildren had no idea of their accomplishments. Moss also said that, sadly, many of the African American NASA employees of the era are aging and in poor health, and were unable to participate in interviews.
We Could Not Fail promises to be a good read for the space history, but even more so for the stories of the courageous people who made that history.
You can purchase We Could Not Fail through the link above or by clicking the book cover image. Purchases through links on Seattle Astronomy help support our efforts to bring you great space and astronomy stories. We thank you!