History has a way of magnifying the stories of people who achieved feats over the stories of people who pioneered and paved the way for others to achieve greatness. One of such stories is that of Edward Joseph Dwight Jr, the first black man to be trained as an astronaut but never made it into space.
Dwight was born in 1933 and is the first African American test pilot to enter the Air Force training program from which NASA selected astronauts. He attended night classes at Arizona State University while training to become a test pilot and in 1957, graduated cum laude with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering.
Dwight later completed Air Force courses in experimental test piloting and aerospace research at Edwards Air Force Base in 1961 and 1962, respectively. He received the rank of captain while serving in the Air Force.
It was during this time that Dwight was hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to become the first-ever African-American astronaut. In fact, President John F. Kennedy personally called Dwight’s parents to congratulate them on their son’s acceptance to the space program, according to The New York Times.
“I was told, ‘It’s a possibility to be a credit to your race.’ They said, ‘We can show the world that the black folks can have a scientific mind and make scientific contributions as well,” Dwight is reported to have said when he was recently interviewed about his time in the airforce.
His selection brought a lot of world-wide media attention and focus on him and exposed him to a lot of racist reactions as politicians, reporters and citizens alike questioned his physical and mental capabilities and fortitude, sceptical that a black man had what it took to make it to space.
Facing severe discrimination from fellow pilots and instructors, Dwight was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was on press tours around the world promoting the cause. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, NASA chose their next batch of astronauts and Dwight was not a part of the all-white fourteen-man squad.
In 1966, he retired from the Air Force. It was another seventeen years after he resigned that the first black man made it to space. In June 1967, a year after Dwight’s retirement, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr became the next black person to be drafted by NASA, going on to become a fully trained and recognized astronaut. In December that same year, he died in a plane crash during a training session.
Dwight has had many firsts to his name starting in 1951 when he became the first black male to graduate from Bishop Ward High School, a private Catholic high school in Kansas.
He received a scholarship to study at Kansas City Arts School afterwards and graduated with an Associate of Arts degree in 1953. That was when he joined the Air Force and in 1955, he was commissioned as an Air force Second Lieutenant.
In 1977 after he lost the space expedition opportunity, Dwight got a Masters of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the University of Denver after working in real estate and as an engineer for IBM. Today, he has made a thriving career in sculpting and has a lot of high profile projects to his name. He is internationally known and recognized for his innovative use of negative space in sculpting.
His first major work was a commission in 1974 to create a sculpture of Colorado Lieutenant Governor George L. Brown and has worked on a series of bronze sculptures called “Black Frontier in the American West”, “Jazz: An American Art Form”, a series of over 70 bronze sculptures at the St. Louis Arch Museum which depicts the evolution of jazz and features jazz performers such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Parker.
Dwight owns and operates Ed Dwight Studios, based in Denver, Colorado.