Many Americans know that in 1947 Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play professional baseball. Others know that three years later, Ralph Bunche was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Most know that on a December day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. A smaller number of Americans know that a few weeks later, Julius Montgomery became the first black professional to join the United States space program.
Breaking Barriers at the Cape
In 1956, Julius Montgomery joined the cohort of scientists, engineers, and technicians who had set their eyes on reaching the stars. They called themselves “missilemen.” Julius Montgomery was part of a cadre of African American mathematicians, engineers, and technicians who helped power the American space program — at a time when Jim Crow laws kept them from using the same restrooms and drinking fountains as their coworkers. When Mr. Montgomery began work as an electronics technician at Cape Canaveral, he was the first black man to serve there in a role other than a janitor.
In 2015. Richard Paul and Steven Moss chronicled the the pioneering role that Julius Montgomery and other African Americans played in advancing the American space program in We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program chronicle. “Julius [Montgomery came] to Cape Canaveral,” Paul and Moss write, “in the mid-1950s at a time when the Ku Klux Klan controlled that part of Florida. There were Klansmen who were aldermen, city councilmen and businessmen. So, Julius [reported] to work on his first day probably knowing that most of the men in his work group were going to be Klansmen.” This was a challenging moment filled with opportunity and peril.
The Making of a Missile Man
Julius Montgomery was well qualified for his post at what was then called the Missile Test Project. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Mr. Montgomery served in the U.S. Air Force. During his time in the military, he earned a first-class radio-telescope operator’s license. Looking for an opportunity to use his technical background, he applied for and was hired to work in the RCA Development Lab at Cape Canaveral.
It was in the RCA lab where a young physicist named Jerry Keuper met Julius Montgomery. Keuper encouraged him to apply to his fledgling university, Brevard Engineering College. Mr. Montgomery signed up. He was smart and he wanted to get ahead. In September 1958, when officials at Brevard County School district discovered that an African American would be attending classes at the segregated Eau Gallie Junior High School, they issued an ultimatum to Keuper. Julius Montgomery must withdraw or Keuper, and his “missilemen” would be evicted from the classrooms.
An Act of Courage and Generosity
When Julius Montgomery learned that the college’s very existence was threatened, Mr. Montgomery volunteered to withdraw his application. That day Jerry Keuper promised Julius Montgomery that there would be a place for him at Florida Tech once the university secured campus of its own. In 1961, when academic operations shifted to our Country Club Road campus, Julius Montgomery enrolled in classes.
A University’s Tribute
In June 1961, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, one of the Mercury 7 astronauts. received the first honorary doctorate awarded by Florida Tech. On January 13, 2020, Florida Tech’s president T. Dwayne McCay, recognized Julius Montgomery’s lifelong commitment to education and civil rights in a ceremony at Gleason Auditorium bestowing on him an honorary doctorate in humane letters. It is fitting that the university bestow its highest honor to an individual who played a pioneering role in making American a space-faring nation and to the man whose personal sacrifice ensured the university’s survival.