We're working on a new version of PRX. Want a sneak peek?

Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Race and the Space Race

For Soundprint and producer Richard Paul, I’m Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in Space.
GEORGE WALLACE: And I say “Segregation now and segregation forever.” (applause)

The Space Age began when America was going through a wrenching battle over Civil Rights. And because NASA had chosen to base itself in the heart of the old Confederacy, it played an unintended role in Civil Rights history.

MORGAN WATSON: The Space Program certainly helped change the South.

In this program, we’ll hear the stories of the people who broke the color line at NASA. Their stories of frustration.

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: The first day I was there nobody would shake my hand.

And their stories of perseverance.

MORGAN WATSON: The whole image of black people were riding on us as professionals.

A look at NASA’s unexplored impact on race in America.

MOSS: Suddenly, the South could step away from segregation because this was a new society, literally being built and shooting off into the stars.

“Race and the Space Race” – the unlikely story of Civil Rights and the Space Program. Coming up after this hour’s news.
JEMISON: From Soundprint and producer Richard Paul this is “Race and the Space Race” – the unlikely story of Civil Rights and the Space Program. I’m Mae Jemison: In 1992 I made national and world history.

(MUSIC) This is CNN Breaking news. (MUSIC) ANCHOR: Good morning. I’m Ralph Wenge. As you know, in just a couple of minutes the Space Shuttle Endeavour is about to be launched.

JEMISON: I was on that flight. And when it left the earth, the face of the space program changed.

REPORTER: On board were the first Japanese citizen to fly on a US spacecraft, and the first black female astronaut, Mae Jemison
JEMISON: I know that there are people who desperately need to know that they -- as a young black girl growing up -- can do anything that they want.


JEMISON: Growing up in the 1960s right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, my parents made sure (my brother, sister and) I knew African American achievement was not new. Nor did the push for full rights start or end with Martin Luther King. There were others who changed the world. In fact, the early 1900’s saw black men like Dr. Daniel Hale Williams perform the first successful open heart surgery and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole with Admiral Peary. (So of course, my thirst for science and adventure fit right in.)

GROUND CONTROL: Solid rocket ignition and lift off. Lift off of Endeavor, on America’s 50th Space Shuttle flight.

That little girl was on my mind that day. But along side me, hidden from history were others. African American engineers, rocket scientists, physisicsts who helped build the space program of which I was part. They were hidden beause in the early years of NASA you could have counted the black professionals on your fingers.


WATSON: My name is Morgan Watson, and I started at NASA in the spring semester of 1964.

JEMISON: Morgan Watson is one of them. In the early 1960’s in Alabama he and 7 or 8 other men broke the color barrier at NASA.

WATSON: We had heard Martin Luther King say, “When you start off a race behind, you have to run faster than everybody else.” We were the first African-American engineers at NASA. And just to be a part of being able to remove some of those barriers; is just a thing that we are very proud of.

The stories of people like Morgan Watson is like so much of the African-American history, often marginalized and then forgotten. We think we know Black history. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But what does any of that have to with the Space Program? You’ll be surprised. Turns out there IS a link with.


NEIL ARMSTRONG: Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

MUSIC - Civil Rights workers singing Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round

MOSS: NASA’s role in southern desegregation remains an unwritten and almost forgotten chapter in the history of the space program. Two main rivers, the Civil Rights movement and the Space Program; they merged.

JEMISON: Steven Moss, a professor at Texas State Technical College in Waco is the author of one of the only known histories of NASA’s link to Civil Rights.

MOSS: Suddenly, the South could step away from segregation, because it was “The Space-Age” -- because this was a new society, literally being built and shooting off into the stars.

JEMISON: In those early days, NASA’s main centers were in what had been the heart of the old Confederacy. Huntsville, Alabama — right next door to Decatur -- where I was born, Houston, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. For the fewer-than-50 African-Americans who came to those segregated communities to work at NASA, that new society started off just like the old one they knew.

WATSON: There were white and colored -- as they said -- water fountains. Separate restroom facilities. But that was a way of life, and you adapted to your environment.

JEMISON: Even as a child, Morgan Watson was what they used to call “A Race Man.” Someone who worked to make life better for African Americans. He was a paper boy in 1956 and when that year’s election results came out, he looked past who the winner was and, instead, analyzed the vote.

WATSON: They would break it down by what the race of the voters were. And in my particular parish they were no black voters.

JEMISON: He had a friend who’d been born the same month. They vowed that when they both turned 18, they’d be the first black voters in the county.

WATSON: We didn’t have any difficulty because the test that they tried to give us was – you know – we aced it.

JEMISON: These were small steps. And while most of the Old Guard in the South fought voter registration, some began to see openings. Lyndon Johnson, for one. At the time, a Senator from Texas and majority leader of the US Senate, Johnson was convinced that if the South could be integrated, then Democrats would become the dominant party and a Southerner could be elected president. He embraced early civil rights legislation.

JOHNSON: Although some men who would be president on a Civil Rights platform answered none, on the roll calls for those bills, there were 45. Lyndon Johnson answered all 45. (Applause).


JEMISON: And according to Bruce Shulman, author of the book Cotton Belt to Sun Belt, Johnson looked to NASA to help bring the changes he sought.

SHULMAN:: Johnson was the leader of a group of Southern Democrats who saw the Space Program as a main chance for their region; a chance to transform the South and, in the process, to make big headway on dealing with the problems of racial injustice in the region.

JEMISON: Throughout the 1960s, these Southern Democrats, many in charge of important Congressional committees, pumped billions of dollars into NASA’s Southern centers.

SHULMAN: Johnson came of age of course in the 1930s -- and many people who came of age during the New Deal and the Great Depression had this idea that Southern poverty was at the root of the system of racial injustice. He also thought that part of the reason that resistance to integration was so fierce, was that there was so little to go around in terms of resources.

JEMISON: This money had strings attached that historian Steve Moss says forced the integration of hundreds of Southern workforces.

MOSS: That they had to identify themselves as equal opportunity employers, and that they would not discriminate based on race. If you’re a defense contractor, NASA contractor, you can’t afford to go to your shareholders and say, “We just blew a billion-dollar contract.”

JEMISON: And money wasn't NASA’s only weapon.

STEVEN MOSS: Throughout the 1960s, the government relied on the space imagery -- the romance, the pioneering spirit. And in real terms, that transferred into the communities; “Because this is the space-age, we have to treat people better.” “Because we are doing this, we need a new society. We need a new way of doing things. We need to break up old traditional hiring and segregation habits.”

JEMISON: That’s the BIG picture of how NASA and Civil Rights meshed. Of course it didn’t always work. But still, word got out: In the Space Program, the door was open. Jim Jennings is a retired NASA deputy administrator.

JENNINGS: Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy was looking for a way to help integrate the South and they saw that the Space Program was a federally funded program and found out that the Republican Party was interested in funding this to beat the Russians to the moon or whatever -- so they thought this was a good opportunity to have a federal program that they could get to have Blacks into -- to integrate that part of the government, and also influence the local community. So, I’d heard these things, we heard that the president -- Johnson -- was interested in getting Blacks to come and work for the Space Program.


ROBERT TROUT: This is Times Square as the great moment approaches. The heart of the nation’s largest city preparing to go mad at midnight. A tumultuous farewell to the year 1957.

JEMISON: The main part of our story begins in 1957.

MOSS: 1957 was just a hellacious year (laughs) Civil Rights and the Space Program -- they began their parallel courses around 1957.

JEMISON: Steven Moss says that we don’t remember today but in 1957, Congress -- pushed by Lyndon Johnson -- passed a Civil Rights bill.

JOHNSON: I think that we have real duty to protect the Constitutional Rights of every American citizen. Now I have tried to do that with two Civil Rights bills during the three Congresses that I have been leader.

MOSS: That passes in early September and gets signed. Perfect timing. Little Rock Arkansas, September 1957; there is an attempt to integrate schools, especially Central High School.

ORVILLE FAUBUS: Units of the National Guard are already on duty on the grounds of Central High School.

MOSS: September 25, Eisenhower sends the 101st Airborne to integrate Central High.

EISENHOWER: An extreme situation has been created in Little Rock. This challenge must be met.

MOSS: So you have a Southern Democrat getting Civil Rights legislation passed that nobody else could do for 80 years, you have a Republican president sending troops into the South to bring about integration.


MOSS: And two weeks later, of course, the Soviets have to get involved and they launch Sputnik.

ANNOUNCER: Today, a new moon is in the sky; a 23 inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.

JEMISON: These were earth-shaking changes on the national scale. But down where Morgan Watson was living, it was hard to see how they applied.

WATSON: During my elementary and high school years, I picked cotton.

JEMISON: But Morgan wanted more and -- though he didn't know it yet, those earth-shaking events had conspired to help him. As it would turn out, Morgan had exactly the right skills at exactly the right time.

WATSON: I liked to tinker with things. I worked in a hardware store, and the white store owner saw my report card one day and saw that I had good grades in math, chemistry and so forth and he said, “You know, you would probably make a good engineer.” So I went to the library and started reading about engineers.

PRES. KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

WATSON: It was very difficult for me as a boy, picking cotton in ninth grade to even visualize going to NASA. MUSIC I knew what NASA was and I knew about President Kennedy’s idea of putting a man on the moon. But to think that I could work there?

KENNEDY: This nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal. And that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

JEMISON: In fact, right about that time, President Kennedy was taking steps to pave the way for young African-Americans like Morgan to move ahead. In 1961, he signed an executive order that, Steve Moss says ...

MOSS: Required all federal departments and agencies to engage in and promote equal employment.

JEMISON: The greatest impact on Morgan Watson’s story is the part of that executive order that involved the contractors of those federal agencies.

MOSS: It was significant with NASA because when it is giving out 2, 3, 4 billion dollars of contracts all around the country, but especially those in the South, those contractors -- have to go along with it.

JEMISON: Decisions were made early to place NASA primarily in the South.

MOSS: Was it intentional or deliberate act of social policy -- to put the agencies in the South? No. There were other factors on why they located there. But the consequences of their being there are what made the difference. Because of the executive orders and the Civil Rights Acts, NASA was going to keep influencing the South.


JEMISON: But it wouldn’t be easy. Because the places picked as NASA host communities were some of the most segregated in the country.

MUSIC - Hard Time Blues

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: In Florida I lived in an all-black community. White folks across the tracks. We were on the other side of the tracks (laughs).

JEMISON: Julius Montgomery worked at Cape Canaveral. So did
Theodis (thee OH diss) Ray.

THEODIS RAY: All right; everybody travels. So as you travel, you go to the station to gas up; it would say “colored” and it'll say “white.” The colored fountain never worked, it was always cruddy. The black bathroom -- or the colored bathroom was always out of order, so you had to go behind the building and go down -- once you left there you go down past the road somewhere and relieve yourself. And this one on for men and women.


RICHARD HALL: There were only one school in the city from grade 1 to 12 for blacks.

JEMISON: Richard Hall grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. He worked at NASA for 40 years.

RICHARD HALL: As a matter of fact, when I first started school, I had never seen a book or magazine or newspaper. Never seen one!

JEMISON: Conditions for blacks were no better in Houston, home of the Manned Spacecraft Center. Otis King led the protests that desegregated Houston’s movie theaters.

OTIS KING: When my mother and I would go to town, on the bus, we had to be careful to notice where the designation line was placed for colored and make sure we sat behind that. It was a moveable sign. I think they could clip it onto the seat. Because at times, when the bus population changed; and there were more whites, they would move it farther back. So that the whites could still sit in front of blacks.

JEMISON: Each of NASA’s three home communities had its own special, ingrained and seemingly intractable racial problems. And while the black citizens of Houston, Huntsville and Cape Canaveral will tell you that it’s hard to say which was worse, the state that got the most national attention at the time was Alabama.

ANNOUNCER: The long anticipated freedom march from Selma to Alabama’s capital of Montgomery finally gets underway. As Dr. Martin Luther King addresses the crowd at the starting point.

DUNAR: Some of the major confrontations of the Civil Rights movement took place in Birmingham.

JEMISON: Andrew Dunar (DOO narr) is a professor of history at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

DUNAR: There was also protest in Selma which is commemorated annually. This is one of the major confrontations in the Civil Rights movement.

ANNOUNCER: Violence broke out tonight in Birmingham, Alabama as police and police dogs charged a group of 600 Negroes marching on City Hall.

JEMISON: But things were different in NASA’s home in Alabama. Better? That’s relative. But definitely different. We’ll hear Morgan Watson’s experience in Huntsville and the stories of others there and in Houston and Cape Canaveral when we come back.


This is “Race and the Space Race" -- Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral and – the unlikely story of Civil Rights and the Space Program. I’m Mae Jemison and we’ll be back after a break..
This is “Race and the Space Race” from Soundprint and producer Richard Paul. I’m former astronaut Mae Jemison.


GEORGE WALLACE: And I say “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” (applause)

JEMISON: In the early 1960s, NASA was gearing up to put a man on the moon. It’s most prominent centers – which had been transferred to the agency on the late 1950s and early 1960s – were based in some of the most racist parts of the Old South. Including Alabama, whose governor was George Wallace.

GEORGE WALLACE: I will tell you who has interfered, the federal court system has interfered. They are overseers. They even tell you what bus you can ride on.

JEMISON: Morgan Watson landed in the middle of this when he and his friends arrived to enter a co-op program at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

WATSON: There were no apartments or hotels or anything that would allow us to live there. Everything was segregated. So they found us rooms with people in the community.

JEMISON: Despite that, Alabama’s turmoil bypassed the city where NASA had chosen to locate itself.

WATSON: We found no problem in going to Huntsville. Life was very different outside Huntsville than inside Huntsville.


ANNOUNCER: Amid the fertile farm lands of northern Alabama, the Army consolidates its expanding missile activities late in 1949.

JEMISON: America’s perception of Alabama was shaped by Selma and Birmingham. But there were degrees of awful when it came to racial separation in the state. Julius Montgomery, who spent his career at Cape Canaveral, grew up in Birmingham.

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: In my community it was all black. In fact, I had not talked to a white person in my life until I was in the service.

JEMISON: But you wouldn’t have had an experience like Julius Montgomery’s growing up in Huntsville. Long-time NASA employee Richard Hall says when he was a kid,

RICHARD HALL: We talked to white people and chopped cotton with them, picked cotton with them. But culture-wise, everything was totally separate.

JEMISON: This difference has its roots in Alabama history. Farms were smaller in northern Alabama, and there wasn’t much plantation slavery there. Another factor, according to University of Alabama-Huntsville professor Andrew Dunar is that the Federal presence in Huntsville had been strong and influential for years.

DUNAR: Businessmen in North Alabama wanted to continue that relationship. And the federal government was able to you use Marshall Space Flight Center as well as the army to put pressure on Governor Wallace and on the state of Alabama to try to make some progress in Civil Rights.

JEMISON: In the years right after the war, the Army pumped millions into Huntsville.

ANNOUNCER: The Army moves the former German missile experts, other components of its missile team, and some military personnel here to continue rocket development.

JEMISON: So Huntsville wasn’t the worst of NASA’s southern installations. No, to find that, you’d have to look in the place you’d least expect.

ANNOUNCER: Bright sun, Blue water, carefree gaiety everywhere you travel. These are the real high spots of Florida that make it America’s Playland.

JEMISON: You’d never guess, thinking of Florida that its racial history is one of the worst in America. Ben Green teaches at Florida State University.

BEN GREEN: Florida has this highly cultivated image as a tourist paradise, but a part of Florida history that really has never been publicized is its record of lynchings. Florida had the highest rate of lynching of any Southern state.

ANNOUNCER: The animal kingdom flourishes in Florida’s subtropics climate.

BEN GREEN: What shocked me, even being a native Floridian, was to find out just how powerful the Klan was in Central Florida.

JEMISON: In fact the part of Florida where the Klan was strongest was in the area surrounding Cape Canaveral.

BEN GREEN: In Brevard County, the home of Cape Canaveral, going back to the 20s they used to have Klan parades; they had a junior Klan for young people; even up until the 1960s. They had elected officials, city commissioners, Alderman, county commissioners, local businessmen joined the Klan, almost like joining the Rotary club.

JEMISON: Many in the Federal government hoped that by bringing jobs into Florida they would tone down this kind of thing. They also hoped that the extra jobs that came with NASA’s arrival in Florida would help the black community. MUSIC But near Cape Canaveral itself, the arrival of the Space Program actually had the opposite effect at first. Rockets had been launched from Cape Canaveral since 1950. But when the Space Race began, the government bought up much of the rest of the land around the old missile base, creating what’s now called the Kennedy Space Center. And in doing so, a flourishing African-American community was wiped out.

THEODIS RAY: There was a lot of history there. There was a lot of black people doing things that I don’t see written anywhere.

JEMISON: Theodis Ray is a life-time resident of Titusville, Florida, near the Cape.

THEODIS RAY: We have a -- basically, historical joint over there on the main street in Titusville. But it has nothing about black people and what they did here.

JEMISON: It turns out, the place where I, and the other astronauts left the earth for space was once an all-black community called Allanhurst.

THEODIS RAY: It was a segment between Titusville, and Oak Hill. Back then you know, blacks had a lot of property over there. There was a lot of industry over there.

JEMISON: There were orange groves run by African-Americans. There was a thriving, black-owned fish processing industry. The area had its own black entrepreneurs.

THEODIS RAY: Like, for instance, we go back to Andrew Gibson. Well, Andrew Gibson was one of the first blacks in Titusville to set up business. He set up what we might say today was the first little mini mall that had a barbershop, a shoe shop, a café -- you know all these kind of things. There’s nothing written today about it.

JEMISON: Theodis Ray says NASA’s arrival ended all that.

THEODIS RAY: It wiped us out. I mean, you had these fishermen -- that was their livelihood. You know most of them didn’t have education and all they did was fish.


JEMISON: He says a lot of them ended up working as janitors at NASA. Theodis did too, until he joined the Marines and went to Vietnam.

MUSIC - “Midnight Special” sung by Leadbelly
If you ever go to Houston / You better walk right, you better not stagger, you better not fight.

JEMISON: While it would be fair to say things were better for blacks in Houston, again, it’s really only by a matter of degree. Otis King, is an retired law professor at Texas Southern University.

OTIS KING: We were in the South. The notion that Texas was West or Southwest came along, much later. There was no difference in my thinking and my feeling about living in Houston then when I thought about persons who lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, or other places in the South.

JEMISON: One can get a pretty vivid understanding of Houston’s black/white divide by looking at the spot picked for what we now call The Johnson Space Center; in an area 30 miles from Houston called “Clear Lake.” Texas State College Professor Steven Moss.

MOSS: About 1960, the Clear Lake area had about 6,000, 7,000 people in it. 1965 it’s got 30,000 people in it. But there were no black families living in the Clear Lake City development. 30,000 people, no blacks.

JEMISON: Now this had to do – in part – with real estate prices and the disparity of incomes between blacks and whites. But Otis King says there was more to it than that.

OTIS KING: The whole Clear Lake area -- the whole area going between here and Galveston; our thinking during that time was that they were basically sort of Ku Klux Klan territory and they were all white communities.

JEMISON: The land at Clear Lake was given to NASA by Rice University whose original charter said the school was open to “white inhabitants of Houston and Texas.” No blacks lived anywhere near the place.

OTIS KING: You had a stretch of about 50 miles where there were blacks in Houston and then blacks again in Galveston, but no blacks living in between. And NASA, of course was right in the middle of that space.

JEMISON: This arrangement with Rice University is one example of the odd dance in which NASA was forced to engage in order to survive and thrive in the South. Remember: NASA was a federal agency. So it’s funding was constantly up for debate in Congress and NASA often had to make decisions and take actions on race that annoyed its biggest backers. In 1964, a dispute made it to the Oval Office.

STENNIS: Uh Mr. President?
STENNIS: Uh this is John Stennis.

JEMISON: John Stennis was one of the most powerful members of the US Senate. NASA employees were banned from speaking to segregated organizations, and NASA Administrator Jim Webb was scheduled to address a Chamber of Commerce in the Senator’s home state of Mississippi.

STENNIS: I’m in Jackson, Mississippi, Mr. President and I don’t know whether you know it or not but Jim Webb is about to cancel out as a speaker down here.
JOHNSON: And I just can’t do that, my friend. That’s something that --
STENNIS: Well --
JOHNSON: You just forget you talked to me. They got a rule here that nobody in authority speaks at any segregated meetin’.

JEMISON: And yet, anti-discrimination policies did not guarantee a truly diverse work force. As Steven Moss says, the number of black professionals at NASA was paltry.

MOSS: How paltry? In 1964, according to the New York Times, only eleven blacks were part of the 1,500 member NASA workforce at Cape Canaveral.

JEMISON: And things didn’t get a lot better as time went on.

MOSS: That’s only 1% of the NASA workforce in Florida and even looking throughout the 60s for the whole agency, NASA was consistently, in its workforce at about 3%.

JEMISON: Now there were African-Americans in aerospace that NASA could have picked from. A 1958 article in Ebony Magazine said there were “Over 1,000 Negroes in the satellite/missile field.” Some of them were profiled in a film strip put together by Charles Lang, a college professor in California to encourage black kids to stay in school.

ANNOUNCER: Mr. Charles Hughes attended junior college in order to receive training as a technical illustrator. Today, he is an illustrator of aerospacecraft design.

JEMISON: The film strip was used by NASA in a program called “Space Mobile” that went to inner city schools.

ANNOUNCER: Dr. Collins is a member of the Apollo Digital Engineering Programming Department. She gives advice on planning lunar trajectory.

JEMISON: But these people – like most in the Space Program -- were working for aerospace companies, not for NASA. The Apollo program’s most noted black scientist wasn’t at NASA either. He was George Carruthers, a civilian astronautical engineer working for the Navy in Washington, DC who designed an ultraviolet camera that was placed on the moon by the Apollo 16.

CARRUTHERS: Nobody had gone out into space with film further than the top of the Earth’s atmosphere -- going all the way to the moon and taking pictures of the earth -- was totally unique.

JEMISON: Carruthers came to Washington in the late 50s when the Naval Research Lab was competing with Werner Von Braun’s team in Huntsville to put the first rockets into space.

CARRUTHERS: The Naval Research Lab was doing pure science with these rockets which was something different from what von Braun’s group was doing.

JEMISON: The Navy team used their early rockets to observe astronomical objects and to take pictures of the earth’s atmosphere.

CARRUTHERS: The fact that the Naval Research Lab was interested in x-rays and ultraviolet astronomy was really great to me because that was something I could do that was new and different.

JEMISON: Carruthers’ camera was a huge step forward for American science; taking pictures that are the forerunner of today’s images from the Hubble Space Telescope. This was one of the most significant scientific achievement by a scientists in the early space program.

CARRUTHERS: We pointed back at the earth and took for the first time the pictures of the Earth’s upper atmosphere in ultraviolet light; which had never been done before.

JEMISON: In addition to those 11 African-American technicians at Cape Canaveral, there were 30 at NASA-Houston, in a workforce of nearly 5-thousand. To be fair, NASA – and especially the Marshall Space Flight Center – did TRY to hire black workers. But it said it couldn’t find them. It’s not clear whether or not that’s true. On one side of the argument, Andrew Dunar of the University of Alabama-Huntsville says

DUNAR: African-Americans didn’t really have full access to education in the South, so it meant that Marshall had to go to the North to try to recruit African-American engineers for example.

JEMISON: Morgan Watson, though knew there were sources NASA was ignoring. He went to school with them, at all-black Southern University in Baton Rouge.

MORGAN WATSON-3: Don’t look at Auburn or don’t look at the University of Alabama or Georgia Tech or any of those places for black engineers. Go to the black schools.

ANNOUNCER Tuskegee shops prepare students for jobs and aviation plants.

JEMISON: But going to the black schools had it’s problems too. Mary Beth
Gasman (GAS minn) of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a history of the United Negro College Fund.

MARY BETH GASMAN: The majority of black colleges were created either just prior to the Civil War or shortly after. And, initially, they were -- most of them were named “colleges,” and that was sort of a hope for the future.

JEMISON: Before the Civil War it was illegal in some states for African-Americans to be educated at all. So for those first classes at the first black colleges, Dr. Gasman says,

MARY BETH GASMAN: You can just imagine what these schools were dealing with. And so they really had to focus on primary and secondary education.

JEMISON: And even after they had advanced, black colleges in the early 20th Century concentrated primarily on vocational education.

ANNOUNCER: In the Agriculture Department, students study the operation and maintenance of farm equipment. A forging class learns how to make machine parts and is this the tools.

JEMISON: And there’s maybe another less recognized problem that contributed to the tiny size of NASA’s African-American science and engineering corps. Dr. Frank Crossley was one of the US Navy’s first black commissioned officers. He spent most of his career working in aerospace.


FRANK CROSSLEY: There is an absence of formal models as close relatives of African-Americans in fields other than chemistry. When a young person has a close relative, who is in the engineering field they feel comfortable in entering that field because -- you know -- If Uncle Harry can do that, then certainly I can do it.

ANNOUNCER: The work of Dr. Carver is well known. While at Tuskegee, he has contributed much to the science of nutrition.

FRANK CROSSLEY: George Washington Carver provided a role model in the area of chemistry. And to the best of my knowledge, all of the historic black colleges and universities offered majors in chemistry.

JEMISON: But, Dr. Crossley says, few offered degrees in engineering. And engineers where what NASA was looking for.

FRANK CROSSLEY: When I have attended national and international meetings in my field -- which is metallurgical engineering, I think I have encountered only two African-Americans at such meetings over the years.

JEMISON: Retired NASA deputy administrator Jim Jennings says, African-American college students in the South were so obstructed by the racism in their communities that they didn’t even think about the Space Program.

JENNINGS: Most folks went to school to be teachers or something in the black community. They didn’t think about that they could go out and actually be a part of something like a Space Program.

JEMISON: Job options for blacks in the late 50s and early 60s – especially in the South – were unmercifully restricted – by custom and in some cases by law.

THEODIS RAY: The basic job that you could get back then was janitorial. Or, if you could cook, you could cook.
WATSON: If you stayed in the South and you went to college, the best you can be would be a teacher.
JULIUS MONTGOMERY: Janitor, concrete work. But you couldn’t be the boss.
E. C. SMITH: My great-grandfather was a railroad man. Or a farmer -- and most of that was –what-do-you-call-it -- sharecroppers or whatever?
RICHARD HALL: Sharecroppers, yes. And then teacher or preacher.
FOSTER: If you thought about becoming a preacher, you always knew you would have something to eat -- fried chicken (laughs).

JEMISON: The prospects were so dim for black engineers in the south, that, Frank Crossley says, young African-Americans planning careers in that field always had to have a Plan B

FRANK CROSSLEY: I decided that I would study engineering and if I couldn’t get a
job, I would either go to Canada or Mexico. Canada had the virtue of speaking English and Mexico had the virtue of having colored people (laughs).


JEMISON: Another problem, historian Steven Moss says was rooted in NASA’s outreach effort.

MOSS: NASA was sending a white recruiter from basically a white agency into a black college to convince black men that they should move to Florida. Or they should stay in Alabama -- nobody talked to them!

JEMISON: Unless there were black recruiters. E. C. Smith and Richard Hall – both long-time NASA employees in Alabama – explain.

E.C. SMITH: When I was up at the University of Arkansas, and they came down recruiting, they had two whites and one black. And the black happened to be Charles Smoot, and he -- from his interview with me, I came over here. (All laugh).
RICHARD HALL: That tells you something, doesn’t it? (All laugh). They sent out primarily white recruiters. It would be a difficult problem for black recruiters to talk to a person about coming back to Huntsville. They sent out white recruiters, and they end up with basically zero.

JEMISON: But black recruiters also had a hard time. Julius Montgomery says that when he tried…

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: I could not get any black people to come from the north to work down here. I called up, and I talked to a fella’ and he said, “Do what? Come South?! Are you crazy?”

ANNOUNCER: The University of Alabama campus at Tuscaloosa is under a tight security guard of state police as Governor George Wallace appeals for calm and prepares to confront a deputy US attorney.

JEMISON: Long-time NASA employee Clyde Foster had the same problem.

FOSTER: I went on a recruiting trip for NASA and found quite a few. And they just -- some came in, just left the next day.

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: They were afraid because of all the things that were going on. The bombings, the killings, the shootings of the people on the buses. And all of that played a part.


JEMISON: And Morgan Watson says he watched northern blacks try to make it in the South. They never did, because they didn’t know the rules – that you had to keep your head down and go along to get along.

WATSON: They would tend to buck the system, whereas those of us that where there knew how to tolerate the system and survive.

JEMISON: In the south, according to Theodis Ray, you couldn’t even get blacks to cross state lines because survival was really so dependent on knowing the local customs. Knowing who was going to protect you and who wasn’t.

THEODIS RAY: Each state -- being black – each state has a preference. Me being raised in Florida, I wanted to stay in Florida. Like Alabama -- I didn't feel comfortable being in Alabama. Gov. Wallace tells you you’re one of his boys; he’s going to say to you, “Boy if you can keep yourself out of the graveyard, I’ll keep you out of jail.” So when you’re in Alabama, if anything should happen -- a state trooper run down on you; whatever it might be -- you call Gov. Wallace’s boy and you’re covered. Now you come to Florida and it’s different. You come to Georgia and it’s different. Because you’re not under that blanket anymore. It doesn’t sound logical, but it’s the truth. Each state; they had a certain way they treated black people.

JEMISON: You’re listening to “Race and the Space Race” – Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral and the unlikely story of Civil Rights and the Space Program. From Soundprint and producer Richard Paul. I’m Mae Jemison and we’ll be back after a short break.
JEMISON: This is “Race and the Space Race” – Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral and – the unlikely story of Civil Rights and the Space Program. I’m Mae Jemison. MUSIC As a Federal agency, NASA couldn’t discriminate. But there’s plenty to suggest that -- even with all the protections in place, NASA in the South was still in the South. When it came to a fight between federal rules and local custom, NASA retiree Clyde Foster is emphatic who won.

FOSTER-1: Local custom (laughs)

JEMISON: That custom hit Julius Montgomery right in the face when he showed up for his first day at work. In 1956, when he was in the RCA Development Lab, Julius was the second African-American professional hired at Cape Canaveral.

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: The first day I was there nobody would shake my hand. I got to the last fellow; he was the last one I got to (laughs). And I said “Hello, I’m Julius Montgomery.” And, “Boy, you don’t talk to white man like that.” I said (laughs) -- I said, “Ah, forgive me, oh great, white bastard.” I really did say that (laughs). And I laughed, and he laughed and then we shook hands (laughs).


JEMISON: As the years went on and Cape Canaveral grew, Theodis Ray says discrimination remained thick and persistent. It started when a black man went in to ask for a job.

THEODIS RAY: Say, if he was an aircraft mechanic and he had an A tech license. If he came out to the space center, and they had an opening for an A and a B, they would hire people of other races with a B into the A slot before they would put him there. See what I’m saying?

JEMISON: These are the years when Morgan Watson first arrived at Marshall Space Flight Center, where he and his compatriots were the first black engineers.

WATSON: At the time we were there, there were no black professionals at all. I don’t even think there were any clerical workers. We were sources of curiosity by everybody -- and of course the other black people that were hired there were proud of us because we were just blazing new territory for them to follow behind. And we went out of our way to study late, to work hard and to do whatever it took to – well -- we felt that the whole image of black people were riding on us as professionals.

JEMISON: The other blacks who were at Marshall mostly worked at lower-paying jobs as calculators, using hand-cranked calculating machines, mostly doing telemetry. When data was emitted from rocket engines, a technician like Clyde Foster would take it

FOSTER: And we would record it and read several points, and from there we could put that into an equation and figure out how much thrust it took to move an object. And we would take the formulas and adapt those for the computer to run the results.

JEMISON: Clyde helped get his fraternity brother, Richard Hall a job at Marshall doing pretty much the same thing.

RICHARD HALL: I was a film reader when I first started out. Take the information that they collected from the test; you’d have to read the film and we’d get the data so we could process it.

JEMISON: Clyde and Richard, and a number of other African-Americans in the Computation Lab were actually qualified to do much more sophisticated – and higher paying work. But, as retired NASA deputy administrator Jim Jennings explains

JENNINGS: When they first graduated from school with full degrees in the technical areas -- they were actually brought in to the government as technicians -- they weren’t brought in as full professionals.

JEMISON: In order to advance in their careers, they had to take classes. NASA offered the classes, but always off-the-base, in a hotel or at the white university. This being the South, Clyde Foster explains,


FOSTER: You weren’t allowed in public facilities. In order to advance, you have to satisfy the prerequisites of what the job calls for; and they refused to train you.

JEMISON: This particular insult started to eat at Clyde.

FOSTER: You feel like you are a -- a piece of dynamite ready to explode.

JEMISON: Elsewhere in the South, people were getting fired up Clyde decided it wasn’t enough just to get mad. He took action. He worked his way up the chain. And doggedly and with persistence, he convinced NASA to hold a second, separate-but-equal set of training course at Alabama A&M, the all-black college in Huntsville. For the first time – thanks to Clyde Foster, black NASA employees like Richard Hall could advance.

HALL: After I got my promotion to mathematician I became a data processor. We wrote programs to convert the raw data from the tests to engineering units were it make sense to the engineer. So you would write the program, run it in the computer and then give it to the engineer.

JEMISON: But Clyde Foster’s drive to advance people didn’t stop there.

FOSTER: In about 10 years after I had been with NASA, the black university wanted to get a computer science program going. And I told this to my center director. And I persuaded him to cut a deal that they would place me on loan to the University to establish a BS degree in computer sciences. And I said, “Maybe this is one way we can get more employees.” And here comes Jennings -- it was, he was in that class.


JENNINGS: I often referred to Clyde as my professional father. And I didn’t have to go through a lot of the things that he did, because he had been there before and could guide me in the right direction. When I was at Alabama A&M, my major was mathematics. And we had the opportunity to take a couple of computer science courses. And that is how I kind of decided to get interested in NASA.


JEMISON: And while NASA was finally offering training to its African-American employees, it was also taking a more activist role at higher levels; taking on the Jim Crow system directly. In one case, Andrew Dunar says, NASA Administrator Jim Webb paid a visit to Alabama where he made several public appearances.

DUNAR: He said that if progress were not made in Civil Rights in Alabama, that there could be a chance that some of the NASA activities would be transferred to other locations. There was a discussion of moving it to Louisiana, or to Houston.

JEMISON: NASA never went through with the threat. But the message had been delivered to power centers in Alabama; things had to change. And they did. MUSIC A NASA employee named, David McGlathery integrated the University of Alabama –Huntsville. As did our friend Morgan Watson by enrolling in a differential equations course he needed to graduate.

WATSON: I quietly registered for the course. Whereas down south in Tuscaloosa, Governor Wallace was standing in the door and making his declaration “segregation now, segregation today and segregation forever.” So the two of us enrolled in that course. All we knew was we needed the class. And Governor Wallace or anybody else could try and stand in the door and stop us but we needed that class.

JEMISON: Blacks working at NASA were breaking down barriers in Florida too. A white scientist named Jerry Keuper (cooper) had decided to start a technical school. When the college was first starting, the plan was to hold classes in a county high school until they could get their own building. Julius Montgomery signed up to be one of the school’s first students, and on his application he wrote down that he got his undergraduate degree from the Tuskegee Institute. When county school officials saw that, they called Keuper (cooper) in for a meeting.

MONTGOMERY: He was told, “I’m sorry, but this feller here is from Tuskegee so he must be black. He cannot come to this classroom.” So shortly after, I was called by the manager. “Julius Montgomery come to the office please.”

JEMISON: The manager introduced Julius Montgomery to Jerry Keuper.

MONTGOMERY: I said “Yes, Dr. Keuper, what can I do for you?” He said “Well, I need your help.” And the help they needed was for me to take my name off of that list so that he could start his new college.

JEMISON: In a remarkable act of absolute selflessness, Julius agreed.

MONTGOMERY: For the better good of everybody I took my name off the list. And that’s how I got to know Dr. Keuper. We became friends. He said, “As soon as I get my own buildings, you are welcome.” And that is true. He did.

JEMISON: In Houston black activists were taking exactly the opposite approach -- saying “No” when asked to step aside. And because it was Houston, NASA’s presence gave them a tool to use. The Space Agency had allowed the city to portrayed itself as embodying The Future. A new age. The Space Age. In 1963, protesters decided to expose the segregation behind the rhetoric.


ANNOUNCER: The revolving Earth spins unconcernedly as about every 90 minutes Maj. Cooper's capsule completes an orbit.

JEMISON: When Gordon Cooper returned from his space flight -- the longest of the Mercury program – he was welcomed back to Houston with a ticker tape parade downtown. At precisely this time, activists from Houston’s all-black Texas Southern University were negotiating to desegregate the city’s movie theaters. They’d seized on a plan to gain national attention for their cause. Otis King was one of their leaders.

OTIS KING: We had people in the parade route who were going to block it. I think we had probably about 40 people -- down, mixed in the crowd; about half of them would have moved into the street and blocked the parade from the front and about half would moved behind and kept them from turning around or go in another direction.

JEMISON: Organizers were on the phone negotiating with the Lowe’s Theater company in New York as the Cooper Parade got underway.

OTIS KING: We didn’t tell them exactly what we’ve are going to do, but we did tell them it was going to make the national news.

JEMISON: The group had their own deadline. One that left enough time to send runners out to get word to the protesters and tell them whether or not they had a “Go.” Within minutes of the failsafe point, Lowe’s Theaters capitulated. The protest was cancelled. And Houston’s movie theaters were, for the first time, open to blacks. MUSIC Desegregating movie theaters was a small symbolic step. But NASA’s impact went beyond that. It was more than just a tool for black activists to start the desegregation process. Because NASA was able to help establish a black middle class; creating families with enough stability that they could start building better neighborhoods. As an example, Morgan Watson remembers an all-black enclave called Triana (TRY anan) outside the gates of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama.

WATSON: It was an all-black town with outdoor toilets and -- you know, the whole thing. Civilization hadn’t quite made it there yet. That was the old South.

JEMISON: Clyde Foster, who’d convinced NASA to offer training to blacks as well as whites, lived in Triana. And his wife had told him that she’d heard from friends that the neighborhood had once been a city.

FOSTER: And I said “You’re out of your mind girl, this isn’t a city. Not a stoplight, not a stop sign (laughs)

JEMISON: But Foster was intrigued. And he decided to look into it.

FOSTER: And so I told the girl to put on her hat and shoes; we’re going down to Montgomery, Alabama (laughs).

JEMISON: In the state archives, he discovered that the area had, in fact been incorporated in 1819.

FOSTER: And I said, “Holy mackerel.”

JEMISON: Clyde had been trying – unsuccessfully – to get the area purified water. He’d been turned down by the state and by the USDA.

FOSTER: When I found out this was a town, I said the easiest way to do this is: Let’s incorporate the town, and the town will now be eligible for some grants, that you don’t have to pay back.

JEMISON: They applied to a judge to get the charter reinstated. The judge agreed. Clyde got himself elected mayor of Triana and then the action really got started.

FOSTER: We was able to build -- through a grant – a brand-new town hall, the Council offices, fire department, jailhouse, recreation department. And then on the other side we had a gymnasium and a day care.

JEMISON: He appointed a black sheriff. The people elected a black city council. All this set off a chain reaction in other small, black communities around Alabama.

FOSTER: A lot of them said, “Hey, we need to go through our history book to see if there are any other places in Alabama, where in there might have been some towns.” And I had several lawyers start looking into it. And then later on, boys over in Mississippi got in contact with us and they had quite a few towns that were started in the 1800s. And so it started spreading all over.

JEMISON: This movement led to other black mayors being elected. They also appointed black sheriffs and black city administrators.

FOSTER: Then we started calling ourselves the Eastern conference of Black mayors.

JEMISON: In Clyde’s case, he credits NASA with making this possible.

FOSTER: It had to be. Because if I hadn’t had that experience earlier in life to cross over to those areas -- political, education, and all of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.


JEMISON: Looking at NASA as a grand, if accidental social experiment-- it’s an open question how much the space agency really did advanced race relations in the South. NASA retirees – Richard Hall, E.C. Smith and Delano (duh LON oh) Hyder say it certainly changed their corner of the world.

SMITH: It changed in Huntsville. Yes. How far did that spread, I don't know. I doubt very far.
HALL: It was different before and it's different now.
HYDER: I agree with that. What Richard said. Huntsville was different in the beginning, but with the space program coming in to Huntsville it even made it more special and different. Because of the people who came in with their different degrees and different -- from different parts of the country.
HALL: Different countries!
HYDER: Right. It just made a big difference.

JEMISON: Historian Steven Moss says NASA played a very important role in changing white attitudes in the South

MOSS: It made it easier for whites to accept some aspects of desegregation in their communities. Changes occurred due to NASA’s influence and to its perceived influence. So it did affect those areas to some degree.

JEMISON: Steven Moss says that it’s easy today to downplay NASA’s impact in race relations as not significant, but he points out:

MOSS: 40 years, 50 years later, we forget. One black student in the school was an enormous leap forward. One black family in a neighborhood was an enormous leap forward. Did they influence racial change and change in attitudes? Yes it did. Was it enough? That wasn’t its job.

JEMISON: For his part, Morgan Watson credits NASA with ending the flight of the black middle class from the South.

WATSON: The Space Program certainly helped change the South. Not only NASA, but the whole federal government laid the groundwork -- from the military on -- for Blacks to be integrated into the workplace.

JEMISON: He says because NASA represented The Future; because NASA was where only the best and brightest worked; because it took the time and trouble to find a place for people like him – who grew up chopping cotton in the Old South – in building ships to go to the moon. NASA did fulfill the hopes of those who saw it as a way to break down America’s firmest racial barriers.

WATSON: By showing that they were black engineers and others -- that could do that, you proved the fact that people were available that could do it. It helped to break the walls down. It helped change people’s perception of black people in the South.

ANNOUNCER: When the Shuttle Endeavour blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center, it landed in the record books several times over.

JEMISON: So we here are back — the sounds of my shuttle flight.

As an astronaut training at Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, I used to comment on the confluence of events that brought me there. Born at the beginning of the Space Race, and the modern day civil rights movement, in Decatur, Alabama right next door to Huntsville. And, oh yeah – my father was a roofer on the construction of Redstone Arsenal. Instinctively I knew that without any of those events, my journey into space might not have happened. Not because I wouldn’t have had potential, skills, education and drive for exploration — many African America women before me did. But because the country had to finally arrive at the right place to recognize and take advantage of the talent of all its citizens. NASA and its contractors have African American, Hispanic and Asian engineers, scientists, technicians, flight surgeons, other personnel and of course astronauts. At centers not just the South, but around the nation. But there’s still more work to do and the tale continues.


Race and the Space Race was written and produced by Richard Paul. It was edited by Moira Rankin. The producers would like to thank Gordon Patterson at the Florida Institute of Technology who introduced us to Julius Montgomery; Tom Cole, and Steven Fischler who helped us meet Otis King; Roz Foster who introduced us to Theodis Ray; Hattie Carwell who told us about Dr. Frank Crossley, Tarsia Williams, who introduced us to Morgan Watson, and Mrs. Agatha Lang, widow of Dr. Charles Lang for giving us the soundtrack for his film strip, “Equal Opportunity in Space Science.” We would also like to thank the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for their help with this project. Our music was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams. I’m Mae Jemison.