Photography by Mark Mangan
When the government pulled the plug on Ed Dwight Jr.’s chance to become the nation’s first Black astronaut, the talented Kansas native refocused his life into becoming a barbecue entrepreneur, a personal pilot and then one of the nation’s most sought-after sculptors
Ed Dwight Jr. started his extraordinary journey through life on the north edge of Kansas City, Kansas, on a farm near Fairfax Airport, where he and his family grew most of the vegetables and meat that sustained them. He was born to Georgia Baker Dwight and Edward Dwight Sr., both children of slaves. Ed Senior had been a second baseman and centerfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs and played on other all-Black teams from 1924 to 1937. “He played with Satchel Paige and that group,” notes Dwight, who would become a batboy for his father’s old team just a few seasons after Jackie Robinson left the Monarchs to integrate Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Georgia was a devout Catholic and doting mother who valued learning and could pass for white, an advantage she used for the betterment of her children, while also shielding them from racism whenever possible.
“She was fascinated with life and nature and studied to be a writer,” Dwight says. Georgia never let her children’s minds idle and taught them to read from an early age. “She made us read the newspaper every day,” Dwight recalls, and when they finished reading, she’d have them explain what they’d read.
Georgia enrolled her son in a Head Start–type program at the age of two and made sure to expose her kids to as much culture as she could. “The Y[MCA] at Seventh and Quindaro had a training program for preschool kids, and I was three and four years old and painting, making jewelry, woodburning, and everything you can do to possibly make art,” Dwight says. “She got me a library card when I was four.”
Initially, Georgia intended for that library card to come from the main public Kansas City Library. But that institution refused to issue a library card to a Black child, so Georgia was able to secure a library card for her son at Northeast Junior High School even though the librarians expressed reservations about issuing a card to someone so young—none of which would matter to young Dwight.
“That door she opened by getting me a library card—I could travel all over the world in a library,” Dwight recalls.
Another great influence in Dwight’s life was the proximity of Fairfax Airport. “We spent enormous amount of time at Fairfax Airport,” he remembers. On the way to and from the airport, Georgia taught her kids about the flora and fauna they’d pass. Watching planes take off and land, Dwight became obsessed with aircraft. “Sometimes we’d stay even after dark,” he says, and when the sun went down, his mother would teach him and his sister about astronomy, pointing out the constellations and planets.
When he was old enough, Dwight became what he describes as the airport hangar’s “mascot,” the young man who would clean out airplanes for pay and hang out in the maintenance shop, handing the mechanics the tools they needed to fix engines. As he got older, Dwight requested the pilots pay him in plane rides instead of cash, and many obliged. “It allowed me to see life from a totally different angle,” he explains. “When you’re in an airplane, you see things way outside of your scope. You learn to think globally and outside of yourself.”
Dwight was still a boy of only 8 when World War II began, but it would have a profound impact. “It kind of turned my world upside-down,” Dwight recalls. “They turned Fairfax Airport into an Army airport training base. The takeoff went right over our house—day and night—shaking the rafters.” Dwight started studying the airplanes, checking out library books about planes and drawing them. The library is where he discovered flight-training manuals. “I would read these books and I would take the exams at the ends of the chapters. I never, ever thought I’d be flying airplanes or doing anything of the sort. It was just a little secret of mine. I wanted to be an artist.”
Growing up Catholic, Dwight began by copying the paintings and statuary he was exposed to at church. “I did my first oil painting at 8,” he says. He learned metal work from his grandfather, who ran the farm. “We’d go all over Kansas City looking for junk,” Dwight remembers. His grandfather would gather scrap metal and teach his grandson how to melt and join it to make tools and equipment for the farm.
When Dwight was 12 years old, his family opened Dwight’s Soda Grill next door to their house on their land. At this point, Dwight’s day started at 6 a.m. and sometimes didn’t end until midnight. He served at Mass as an altar boy in the mornings, and after school he had paper routes before helping at the family restaurant. He was studying art at school, and at age 14, he opened a sign shop in the back of their house, providing signage for Black businesses in the area. He bought his first car with the profits from that business.
While Dwight and his sister were still attending the local Catholic elementary school, his mother went to Bishop Ward—a prestigious Catholic high school that had erected a new building in 1931—and let them know she planned to someday enroll her kids in school there. The family understood the kids were to be accepted until the school realized that Georgia’s kids were Black and denied them admission. Georgia appealed to local Catholic officials, who also denied her request, but she continued to work her way up the hierarchy, including sending a letter to Rome. Three years after Georgia’s initial request, the school contacted her and notified the family that they had prevailed. The lore in the Dwight family was that an order had arrived directly from the pope. “Lo and behold,” says Dwight, “the Vatican ordered that school to integrate.”
The Bishop Ward integration in 1945 came nine years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that ordered an end to legal segregation in American public schools, and it came two years before similar rulings in neighboring Catholic jurisdictions, such as the 1947 parochial school integrations in St. Louis that resulted in widespread white protests among the Catholic congregations. Given this timeline, the Dwight siblings were taking on a tremendous burden as educational pioneers in a hostile environment.
The official history of Bishop Ward acknowledges that “a number of families” protested and withdrew their students rather than accept integration. Dwight believes that out of 800 students, as many as 300 left the school immediately after their families learned that their children would study alongside two Black students.
As the first Black students at Bishop Ward, Dwight and his sister were required to attend special training before starting classes. “They made my sister and I go to an orientation,” Dwight recalls, though the administration wasn’t too worried about his sister. “But for me, I had to go through intense training,” Dwight says. “I could not look at a white girl in the eye. I could not speak to a white girl. If a white girl was to speak to me first, I was to nod my head.” At Bishop Ward, Dwight boxed, played football and ran track while he studied art. Eventually, his white peers and their parents accepted him and his sister. “Sports was the changeover,” Dwight explains. “If you’re a star athlete, all the sudden all that segregation stuff starts melting away.”
Still, prejudice persisted. Speaking to students at his alma mater in 2018, Dwight noted that although he was accepted on the teams, he could not shower with his teammates and had to use a separate, isolated facility.
After graduation, Dwight’s dad sat him down and asked what he intended to do with his life. Ed replied that he wanted to be an artist, but his dad wanted him to become an engineer. Dwight began taking math and science classes at Donnelly College so he could transfer to Kansas City Community College as an engineering student.
One day on his paper route, an article on the front page of the Kansas City Call caught his attention. Above the fold was a photo of a Black pilot standing on the wing of an F-86 Sabre Cat who had been shot down in Korea. “I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re letting Black people fly airplanes.’”
Dwight went straight down to the local recruiting office, determined to sign up. But the recruiters told him that at five-foot-four he was too short; in addition, Dwight had a significant stutter, and he was told pilots must be able to communicate clearly with the flight tower. He returned to the recruiting office several times—until they told him not to come back.
But Dwight was determined to learn to fly. Following his mother’s lead, he decided to write the Pentagon. Eventually, they sent a team out to the Kansas City Kansas Junior College to test him, and others, for pilot aptitude. “They picked thirty-three of us to go to Denver, Colorado, to test for pilot training,” Dwight says. “I was the only Black kid in the crowd.” When he sat down to take the written test, he realized it was the same material he’d been studying in the flight manuals he’d been checking out of the library for years. He easily passed all the tests, learned to manage his stutter and graduated flight training near the top of his class to become a flight instructor. Traveling from base to base, he learned to fly 26 different aircraft, including planes, helicopters and fighter jets. He was well on his way in a satisfying military career and was told by superiors he was on track to someday make general. That all changed in an instant: “I got a letter November 4th, 1960, asking if I wanted to be an astronaut.”
Dwight’s knee-jerk reaction was to say “No.”
“I didn’t want to go to astronaut training,” he says, laughing. “I thought those guys were crazy daredevils.” At the time, the space program was notoriously dangerous, and several early American astronauts were killed. Once again, Georgia would change the trajectory of her son’s life. “My mom was the one who talked me into it. She said, ‘Son, you do understand that you can help the race, and the civil rights movement, if you do this.’”
Out of only about 125 Black pilots in America, Dwight was the single Black pilot chosen to enter NASA’s space program. Many Black pilots were too old, having served as Tuskegee Airmen in WWII. Dwight was 27, and had not only more than enough flight hours but also the math and engineering skills to be an astronaut. But Dwight saw white America’s reason for training a Black astronaut as purely political. “Senator Kennedy needed the Black vote, and he didn’t know how to get it,” Dwight explains. Civil rights activist Whitney Young advised then Senator John Kennedy that Black youth weren’t being admitted to elite colleges and programs, which was why the country lacked Black engineers and scientists. Reportedly, Young told Kennedy he could go a long way toward securing the Black vote and give someone for America’s Black youth to look up to by encouraging NASA to train a Black astronaut.
On being admitted to the space program, Dwight says his whole life changed. Suddenly he was treated like an important person, making speeches all over the country and taking photo ops with congressmen—including Senator Kennedy—though Dwight says he had little contact with Kennedy, even after he became president, as Kennedy didn’t want his white constituency to discover he’d had a hand in the creation of a Black astronaut. “He would lose white votes, and that’s why he wanted to keep it a secret,” Dwight explains. So Kennedy put his brother Bobby in charge of the Black astronaut program. “Bobby Kennedy did all the work,” Dwight says.
Most of his life, Dwight says he found he was accepted by white people once he showed what he was capable of. The space program was different, and Dwight knew many people didn’t want him at NASA. “Having a Black in the space program too early would destroy NASA’s tax base. In order to sell the space program to the public, NASA wanted the public to perceive astronauts as heroes,” Dwight explains. “If the public found out Black folks or women could be astronauts, well then, they’re just regular people.”
Dwight says many people in the upper echelons of the military and the government tried to end his training. “It wasn’t really over until the president got killed. He was literally protecting me. Once he was killed, they came after me with a vengeance.”
After Kennedy’s death, Dwight was offered overseas transfers that were ostensibly promotions, but which he believed were designed to pull him out of contention as an astronaut. Eventually, he left the military and went to work for IBM. After a stint there, Dwight opened a chain of five barbeque restaurants in Denver. “Because I’m from Kansas City and I love barbeque,” he laughs. Later, Dwight worked as a personal pilot and then became a general contractor. He started collecting scrap metal from his construction sites and on the weekends and began welding pieces together to make abstract art. That evolved into a decorating business, and Dwight would become friends with George Brown, a former Tuskegee Airman and fellow Kansas native who would become the first Black lieutenant governor of Colorado.
Brown asked Dwight to cast a statue of him for the Colorado Capitol and then convinced Dwight he needed to be the man to tell the stories of great Black Americans by creating monuments and statues of them.
So Dwight sold off his businesses and went back to school at the University of Denver to earn his master’s degree in sculpture, returning to his artistic roots. His first big commission was a series of bronze statues for the State of Colorado called “Black Frontier of the American West.” Since then, Dwight has gone on to create bronze statues and memorials all over the country, including “Tower of Reconciliation” to commemorate the Tulsa race massacre.
Today, Dwight mentors other sculptors to teach them how to pitch, manage and create large sculptural installations, and he mostly credits one person with the incredible twists and turns his life has taken. “My mom was always there, whispering in my ear that no white person was smarter than me. ‘You’re smart, and I love you, and you can do anything,’ says Dwight. “After a while, you start believing it.”