Julius Montgomery, a pioneering African American in the space program, died on January 22, 2020, in Florida. He was the first African American ever hired at the Cape Canaveral space facility to work as a technical professional. Additionally, he integrated the Florida Institute of Technology and was the first black member of the Melbourne, Florida, City Council.
When Julius Montgomery came to the Cape from Alabama in 1956, the Ku Klux Klan controlled east central Florida. The Orange County Sheriff was a Klansmen, as were city commissioners, Alderman, and county commissioners. One historian has said, "Local businessmen joined the Klan almost like joining the Rotary club." In the Klan’s wake, of course, came lynching. In the Southern states where the space program was based, Florida had the highest lynching rate per capita, so the racial animus was palpable on Montgomery’s first day.
As he remembered it, "I was a strange person coming into an all-white building. All white." As he entered his new workplace, the RCA Development Lab, "Nobody would shake my hand," he recalled. One by one each of his coworkers turned away. "I got to the last fellow," he said, "and I said ‘Hello, I’m Julius Montgomery.’ He said, ‘Look boy, that’s no way to talk to a white man!’" In a story indicative of who Julius Montgomery was – one he told many times during his life, "I said, ‘Ah, forgive me, oh great, white bastard. What should I call you?’ And I laughed, and he laughed and he shook my hand."
Montgomery began his career as a member of the "Range Rats," technicians who repaired malfunctioning ballistic missiles. Their work mostly involved developing circuits, as there was no "over-the-counter equipment to do the jobs" at the time, Montgomery said. The team also travelled out to the ships that, he said, "searched the skies for anything the Russians were doing" to perform maintenance on the satellite equipment.
At the end of the 1950s, a senior member of Montgomery’s team went to his bosses at RCA and told them he wanted to open a school to keep workers up to date on the state-of-the-art in engineering. The school, originally called Brevard Engineering College (BEC), began life in three rented classrooms at a public junior high school. Montgomery signed up to attend the new school and, on the sign-up sheet listed that he had earned his undergraduate degree at Tuskegee Institute. Within days, the county superintendent of schools was on the phone to BEC, telling them that the school system was canceling their contract to rent the classrooms. The all-white Florida public schools could not allow a black man through its doors.
BEC’s founder summoned Montgomery to his office, told him his dilemma, and begged him to drop out and spare the school. Montgomery did, only enrolling after the school had its own building. Today, Florida Tech (which BEC became) acknowledges that it would not exist without Montgomery’s sacrifice and in his honor presents the Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award annually. Days before Montgomery’s death, the school also awarded him an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
Montgomery was also a pioneer in Florida politics. Standing for elections beginning in 1956 (when fewer than 50 African-Americans held elected office in the former Confederate states), and finally prevailing in 1969, he became the first African American ever to win a seat on the Melbourne City Council.
Julius Montgomery’s is one of many stories of the space program’s African American pioneers that does not comport with what we read about civil rights achievement in the standard high school textbook. Not everyone reached the ends of the Civil Rights Movement by marching, picketing, and saying "no." Many did of course, but others, like Julius Montgomery, applied the principles of self-help and – often – accommodation to reach the same ends.
On February 20, 2010, Julius Montgomery appeared on a panel at the National Air and Space Museum with NASA’s first black engineer, Morgan Watson and astronauts Leland Melvin and Mae Jemison. Montgomery told the story of his first day at the Cape. After the talk, as people snapped pictures of Mae Jemison with the Tuskegee Airmen, also at the event that day (it was tough to tell who was more honored to meet whom), Julius Montgomery sidled over to Leland Melvin and looked up (the astronaut, a former wide receiver who had briefly been drafted by the Detroit Lions, towered over the older man) with wide-eyed awe. "I'll tell you," Montgomery said, "You astronauts, you're the bravest people I ever met." Leland Melvin returned the look and his grin broke into a wide, beaming smile. "No, sir," he said. "I heard your story out there. You are the bravest person I ever met." And Julius laughed, and Leland laughed, and they shook hands.
Richard Paul was the recipient of the Alfred A. Verville Fellowship at the National Air and Space Museum in 2012-2013. During his time as a Verville Fellow, he researched NASA’s role in the civil rights movement and wrote the book We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program (written with Steven Moss). He appears in the new Smithsonian Channel documentary about black astronauts, Black In Space: Breaking the Color Barrier, which begins airing on February 24.