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2017 Black History Month Hidden Figure Pullout.qxp_Sheriff 9/8/07 2007 2/16/17 2:09 AM Page 1

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2017 Black History Month Hidden Figure Pullout.qxp_Sheriff 9/8/07 2007 2/16/17 2:10 AM Page 2


By Erick Johnson

wo historic events that changed America occurred 50 years ago. While many will remember the 50th anniversary of the failed Apollo I flight into space, an equally historic event that affected Black America remains largely forgotten. The 50th anniversary of the tragic death of America’s first Black astronaut, Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, will go unnoticed in 2017. Lawrence was a determined individual whose career into space never got off the ground. Ambitious and fearless, he aspired to venture to the moon at a time when people of color were not wanted in parks, restaurants, and neighborhoods here on earth. Lawrence’s launching pad was his hometown of Chicago, where he blasted through high school and graduated at just 16 years old. Poor and Black, Lawrence faced tremendous odds against breaking into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) lilywhite stratosphere, but when he did, he became America’s first Black astronaut. Black pride turned to sorrow after Lawrence was killed in a jet crash at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The accident happened just 11 months after an electrical fire aboard a rocket in flight killed three Apollo I astronauts on January 27, 1967. This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the deaths of four astronauts, but NASA and America have remembered the three astronauts in the Apollo I disaster as heroes, with special commemorations, while Lawrence remains a forgotten pioneer whose memory has been lost.

Robert Lawrence reinvigorated Black America by breaking the color line at NASA, but there won’t be any ceremonies and special events to mark the 50th Anniversary of his untimely death. Lawrence’s struggle remains the same in death as it was in life: getting recognized as an astronaut at NASA. Despite campaigns and efforts to recognize his contributions, Lawrence’s legacy is drifting like a wayward space satellite. Once a celebrated pilot who flew over 2,500 miles, Lawrence today is rarely honored on the same level as other NASA astronauts who have gone on the ultimate mission. Schools and scholarship funds named after Lawrence have vanished, and with Lawrence’s most avid crusaders of his legacy gone (his wife, mother and other relatives), the legacy of a man who inspired many Blacks to dream big has faded over five decades. Before the release of the movie, “Hidden Figures,” many Blacks were unaware of the historic contributions of Black NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn. Though it was Johnson’s use of analytic geometry that helped bring John Glenn back to earth, she was among the few Black heroes who toiled unsung behind the scenes at NASA, where only three percent of 19,000 employees were Black in 1961. Morehouse, Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute) and other historically Black schools were cranking out physicists, scientists and mathematicians every year, but many did not apply to NASA. Some Black leaders accused NASA of not working hard enough to recruit minorities.

From its inception astronauts were considered the face of NASA. All of them were white and male. Though working for NASA behind the scenes was difficult for Blacks, becoming an astronaut was considered a seemingly impossible mission for people of color. After Black voters propelled John F. Kennedy into the White House in 1961, his administration aimed to increase minorities at NASA, as well as to place a man on the moon. Kennedy wanted to make history by selecting the first Black astronaut. In 1963 NASA officials chose Ed Dwight to train at

ROBERT H. LAWRENCE JR. Elementary School closed in 2013 due to dwindling enrollment and low academic achievement.

MAJ. ROBERT H. LAWRENCE JR poses with fellow astronauts with NASA’s Manned Orbit Laboratory (MOL) program.



the Aerospace Research Pilot School to go into space. NASA eventually did not select Dwight for its space mission. While the agency said his academic qualifications weren’t good enough, many Blacks believed the failure of his candidacy was based on racism. The Black Press, including the influential Ebony and Jet magazines, wrote aggressively about Dwight’s experience. Dwight left the Air Force and became a sculptor. He created the statue of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, which stands outside the namesake cultural center on 47th and S. King Dr. With Dwight gone, Lawrence’s NASA candidacy renewed the hopes of Black America; he was brilliant and had impressive credentials. As Dwight’s hopes of flying into space crashed, Lawrence’s career was gaining altitude. Robert Lawrence was born the son of Gwendolyn and Robert Lawrence Sr., a disabled veteran. In ele-



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MAJ. ROBERT H. LAWRENCE JR. in front of an F-104 Starfighter jet. mentary school, he was called “Bob Junior.” Lawrence’s parents divorced when he was very young. His mother remarried to Charles Duncan, an underwriter at the Veterans Administration, according to J. Alfred Phelps, author of “They Had A Dream.” Though the family was poor, Lawrence was a determined child who mastered the works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff on the piano. He played with model airplanes and was ardent chess player. At just 16-years-old, he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and won a scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, IL. Here Lawrence joined the Air Force ROTC and became a Cadet Commander before graduating with a bachelors degree in Chemistry. By the age of 21, he became an official U.S. Air Force Pilot. At 22, he married Barbara Cress, daughter of the prominent Chicago Cress family, Dr. Henry Cress and Ida Mae Griffin Cress. Scholarly and serious, in 1965 Lawrence obtained a doctorate degree in Physics from Ohio State University with a 3.5 grade point average. His doctoral dissertation was entitled “The Mechanism of the Tritium BetaRay Induced Exchange Reactions of Deuterium with Methane and Ethane in the Gas Phase.” After being rejected twice, Lawrence was accepted into the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School, the breeding ground for NASA astronauts. Upon graduation, Lawrence became the first Black astronaut, one of four men chosen for the Department of Defense’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), a military space station program designed to study the military implications of space flight and information gathering. Each mission would be a two-man, 30-day flight which would begin in 1970. After the announcement, Lawrence received death threats from racist Americans, but he also received letters supportive of his achievements. Lawrence never made it to the stars. On December 8, 1967, he died while training another NASA astronaut to land a F-104 Starfighter Jet. The exercise was part of a six-month training program. Lawrence sat in the rear seat as trainee Major Harvey Royer landed the jet too fast, causing it to crash on the runway. The landing gear collapsed, the canopy shattered and the plane bounced and skidded on the runway for 2,000 feet. Royer was ejected but escaped, albeit with serious injuries. Lawrence was still strapped to his ejector seat, however, his parachute failed to open. He was dragged 75 feet from the wreck. Just 32 years old, Lawrence was dead and so too it appeared were Black America’s dreams of a

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Black astronaut in space. Even so, his training a white pilot was an extraordinary contribution during an era where segregation and racism at NASA was still prevalent. While Lawrence’s death stunned America, the loss deeply affected Black America, which was still trying to push past the disappointment of NASA not selecting Dwight as an astronaut. In Chicago where Lawrence grew up, the sorrow was even more intense. For two days, flags atop city-owned buildings were flown half-staff. Mayor Richard J. Daley made a personal visit to the family to express his condolences. President Lyndon B. Johnson wired the widow and Lawrence’s mother his sympathies. Two funeral services were held to remember Lawrence. The first was a private family service held at the now defunct Griffin Funeral Home in Bronzeville. A second service was held at the First Unitarian Church near the University of Chicago, where some of the most decorated military men in the country were among 500 mourn-

ers who heard the widow speak. “Bob’s death is quite a personal loss to Tracey and myself,” she said. ‘’He gave us a love and security that will be a tremendous void in the days and years ahead. However, he gave his life doing the thing he wanted mostpreparing to be an astronaut. Every day of his life has been given toward that goal. I am most proud of him, as an Air Force officer, and as an American.” Sadly, Lawrence’s grieving widow, son, and parents would suffer emotionally in the years to come. In 1991 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Astronaut Memorial Foundation (AMF) dedicated a memorial in honor of astronauts who gave their lives for the space program. NASA didn’t consider Lawrence an astronaut, saying he had never flown 50 miles. After a public campaign led by Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, Lawrence’s name was added to the memorial in 1997, 30 years after his death. His widow, son, mother and sister attended the dedication. Time has shown that Lawrence is nothing more than a name to NASA. Though his name is engraved high above on the Space Mirror Memorial, NASA doesn’t hold anniversary remembrances of Lawrence the way it does for other deceased astronauts. (Continued on page 4)

MAJOR ROBERT H. LAWRENCE JR. poses with another NASA astronaut with a model of a rocket booster.




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(Continued from page 3) As the 50th anniversary of Lawrence’s death approaches, a NASA official told the Chicago Crusader that unlike ceremonies held in Washington and at Cape Canaveral for the three Apollo I astronauts, there won’t be a 50th anniversary remembrance ceremony honoring Lawrence. Fifty years after his death, NASA still maintains that Lawrence was never an astronaut. On its website, the agency mentions the 50th anniversary of the Apollo I astronauts but mentions nothing about the 50th anniversary of Lawrence’s death. Asked why NASA would add Lawrence to its astronaut memorial yet not remember the other milestone in history, he referred the Crusader to another department, which never got back to this reporter. It gets worse for Lawrence’s legacy. A scholarship fund set up in Lawrence’s name at Bradley University after he died, was discontinued years ago. And the Robert H. Lawrence Elementary School on the South Side closed in 2013 due to declining enrollment and low academic performance. Englewood High School, Lawrence’s alma mater closed in 2008 for similar reasons.

CONGRESSMAN BOBBY L. RUSH speaks during the ceremony honoring Air Force Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. Lawrence. Dec. 8, 1997. Bolden, who became the first Black administrator to head NASA under President Obama’s administration. While Bolden, Jameson and Higginbotham en-

joy new careers since their historic flights to space, for Chicagoans and nationally, Lawrence remains a hidden figure.

MAJ. ROBERT H. LAWRENCE JR. walks with fellow NASA astronauts.

In 2013, Black World Media scheduled a remembrance service at 2310 S. State Street, where Lawrence grew up. The apartment building is no longer there, but organizers wanted to turn it into a park and name it in his honor. The effort however, fizzled. Lawrence’s family was among his most avid crusaders who fought to keep his memory alive. Now, most of them are gone. His widow Barbara died in February 2016 of heart failure. His mother Gwendolyn Duncan, died November 2002 of Alzheimer's disease. Lawrence’s father, Robert Lawrence, Sr. has been dead for over 20 years. The Crusader was unable to contact his son Tracey and his sister Barbara. Some 16 years after Lawrence’s death, Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first Black astronaut to fly into space. Chicago’s Mae Jemison became the first Black woman astronaut in 1987. In 1996, Chicago’s Joan Higginbotham became the third Black woman astronaut. Since Lawrence’s death in 1967, 13 Black astronauts have traveled into orbit, including Charles


PALLBEARERS CARRY THE casket containing the body of Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, whose funeral was held at the First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park on December 12, 1967.




2017 Crusader Black History Month Special Edition