Although the Great Depression created some tough years for America, one magnificent thing that came from the “dirty thirties” was the birth of the first African American astronaut, Robert H. Lawrence Jr. Born on October 2, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois, Lawrence was bright, ambitious, and above all, a pioneer of his time. After graduating in the top ten percent from Englewood High School in Chicago, he attended Bradley University located in Peoria, Illinois. At the young age of just twenty one years old, Lawrence had already received a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and achieved the rank of a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, through a program called AFROTC.
A year after graduating from Bradley University, Lawrence got married to Barbara Cress and continued his service in the Air Force, training pilots in Germany. After his term in Germany was over and he returned to the United States, he earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Ohio State University in 1965. Due to his outstanding credentials, Lawrence was selected to become an astronaut in America’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program. On December 8, 1967, during a training exercise, Lawrence was killed trying to land a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jet. The jet unexpectedly malfunctioned, killing Lawrence at the age of thirty-two. Had Lawrence been able to finish his training, he would have transferred to NASA and flown into space.
According to NASA, anyone selected for astronaut training was considered an astronaut. But the fact that Lawrence never flew the required fifty miles into space, the Air Force didn’t acknowledge him as an astronaut. The result of this disagreement, according to IL Representative, Bobby Rush, was “institutional racism.” For the next thirty years, Lawrence and his accomplishments were ignored by the Astronaut Memorial Foundation.
In 1983, Guion Bluford, flew into space and was considered the first African American astronaut. But after decades of debate, Robert H. Lawrence rightfully claimed his title and was commemorated as the first African American astronaut. On December 8, 1997 his name was etched into the Space Mirror Memorial wall located in Florida.
Having been a Chicago native and a pioneer within his field, a Chicago public elementary school was named after Lawrence within the South Deering Community. In 2013, however, Robert H. Lawrence Elementary School was closed due to a lack of student enrollment and performance levels. Another elementary school nearby, Burnham Inclusive Academy, was relocated to the abandoned Lawrence Elementary School building. Both schools were essentially combined and Burnham Inclusive Academy reopened in the fall of 2013. Although the life of Robert H. Lawrence Elementary School has ended, Lawrence’s legacy of being the first black astronaut, in a way, has just begun.
Preston, Rohan B. “Nation’s 1st Black Astronaut is Memorialized in Monument”, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 28 1997, 2C-4
“The First Black Astronaut”, The Augusta Chronicle, Dec. 9 1997, A6
“First Black Astronaut Honored by NASA”, Jet, November 17 1997, 13
Kelly, Daniel J. “Hearing Officer’s Report on Proposal to Close Robert H. Lawrence Elementary School”, scholinfo.cps.edu, April 2013
— Joe Anderson