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The federal space agency NASA ushered in a new era by integrating workplaces across several regions in the Deep South. Morgan Watson, considered NASA’s first Black engineer, benefited from the progressive aims of President John F. Kennedy and used his wits and skill to become a pioneer.

After President Kennedy took office in 1961, he eventually began to lay the groundwork for workplace integration due to his support of civil rights and worker equality. One of the pathways Kennedy saw was NASA’s rapidly growing space program.

In 1964, Watson, then a student at Southern University, and Walter Applewhite, Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield, Frank C. Williams Jr. all joined the staff at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Despite their brilliance and aptitude, the students were made to take tests that their white counterparts didn’t have to.

After qualifying for the jobs, the students were added to Marshall’s staff and became the only Black employees that were not janitorial or food services related. In fact, Watson once remarked that he didn’t even see Black clerical workers.

Watson was responsible for helping design the heat shield for the Saturn V Rocket mission. The shield was designed to keep heat from destroying the valuable NASA equipment when it reentered Earth’s atmosphere.

Racism was the order of the day in Alabama and points south, and while the NASA workplace was desegregated, the world outside of Marshall wasn’t. Watson shared in an interview that he witnessed and endured several racist acts during his career climb. However, he and his colleagues earned the respect of their peers at the agency and it led to several other Black hires in the years to come.

Watson and 9 other African-American NASA pioneers are the subject of the book, We Could Not Fail, by Richard Paul and Steven Moss.

(Photo: University of Texas)

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