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Science & Environment

As NASA's Apollo Space Program Grew, Alabama Was Pressured To Desegregate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Half a century ago, in the years when the United States was working toward a moonshot, NASA and its contractors created 200,000 jobs across the American South, many in Huntsville, Ala., which created a problem because segregation made it hard to attract talent. NPR's Scott Neuman has the story. And we should note, some of the tape here has racist language.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: It was 1956, a year before the Russians launched Sputnik. Arthur Hullett had returned from Korea, where he served with the Army. He had finished a degree at Alabama A&M, and he was looking for a job that matched his education. He telephoned the U.S. Army's Missile Agency at Redstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ARTHUR HULLETT: And if you want me to tell you, they said, we don't hire n******.

NEUMAN: But Hullett was persistent. He eventually did land a job there as an engineering aide. He was the first African American white-collar worker hired at Redstone. When NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center was created in 1960, he moved there. He's now in his 90s and recalls the first years of the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HULLETT: In those days, when civil rights were just beginning to heat up, and it was pretty tough.

NEUMAN: Hullett, who was interviewed recently by member station WLRH in Huntsville, says he endured open insults. His colleagues once tried to provoke him into a fistfight, hoping that it would get him fired. On another day, a group of white office women persuaded him to have lunch in the cafeteria. He sat down to a roomful of white faces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HULLETT: When they saw me, everybody just got up and got out of there as fast as they could. And there was people who had their food tray on the conveyor, and they walked away and left it there.

NEUMAN: But things were starting to change. In early 1962, civil rights leaders in Huntsville launched sit-ins at lunch counters. They knew that NASA's presence was vital to the economy, and city officials were eager to avoid the negative national attention that might come with an ugly fight over integration. So Huntsville became the first Alabama city to begin desegregation.

German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was director at Marshall. His past made him an unlikely ally in the fight for racial equality. During World War II, he had overseen development of the Nazi's V-2 missile and the forced labor to build it. After the war, the U.S. recruited him to work on American rockets. NASA historian Brian Odom says von Braun understood the need for desegregation.

BRIAN ODOM: He was finding it increasingly hard to get anyone - you know, whites, blacks, whoever - to move to the South because of this negative image.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WERNHER VON BRAUN: This is the elliptical path which our rocket ship will follow - going out and coming back

NEUMAN: Von Braun was already a household name, thanks to his appearing on television specials about the future of space travel. So NASA enlisted him to make the case for integration.

ODOM: Von Braun was brought in really to say, you know, if we don't begin to clean up our image, it's going to become hard to keep facilities like this, to keep jobs like this.

NEUMAN: Odom says von Braun set up programs to recruit African Americans to work in the space program. He began working with two historically black institutions, Alabama A&M and Miles College, and they responded by creating or beefing up engineering programs to meet NASA's demand. Hullett even recalls meeting the rocket engineer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HULLETT: I went to his office, and he got up and shook hands with me, and I felt most comfortable with him.

NEUMAN: And Hullett says, despite his early struggles at Redstone, that by the time he retired in 1983, he was highly respected by his colleagues.

Scott Neuman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOKIE JAR'S "THE HYPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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