Preface by Guion S. "Guy" Bluford, Jr., Ph.D.
I was fourteen years old in 1957, and a student at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, a little silver sphere called Sputnik. It was a startling moment for America, and like the rest of the nation, my family listened with concern to the signal on the radio, a raspy beep beep beep, as it passed overhead.
The airplane was invented by Americans. The first pilot to fly the Atlantic solo was American. So was the first to fly over the South Pole. We expected to be the first nation into space. We were wrong.
We were wrong again when I was a freshman at Penn State in April 1961, when Vostok 1 carried Senior Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin into the first manned Earth orbit. America was humbled. It wasn't just a matter of bragging rights between rival countries. This was the middle of the Cold War. Our leaders viewed supremacy in space as vital to survival on the ground. We had to win because we had to survive. And we were behind.
Moments like that shook the confidence of the nation. But we came back, daring ourselves to reach and work, to lose for the moment if losses happened, but never to give up. We made fatal mistakes. We lost admirable people on the way. But the impossible goal President Kennedy set for America, to be on the moon by 1970, became possible by the combination of technical achievement and sheer will.
We might sometimes take for granted today what was so challenging and dangerous at the time. We might assume that because the early explorers made it look easy, it was. If we make the mistake of taking a difficult thing lightly, we miss the point: it's fun to do the hard things. It's fulfilling to set an impossible task and reach it. No one grows by settling for the possible. Nothing gets better by staying the same.
My parents never needed to repeat ideas like this to my brothers and me when we were growing up. They both had master's degrees, and it was understood that we'd all go to college and all seek to stretch ourselves in challenging fields. A counselor once told me that I wasn't college material, perhaps because I wasn't the most enthusiastic reader in high school unless it was something about engineering or math. It might make my story more romantic if I could say I was inspired by being underestimated, and all the more determined to succeed. The truth is, I ignored that counselor. I'd been raised to know what I wanted, and to pursue it no matter what, and I knew I had what I needed. I knew it when I was one of a handful of African-American students at school, and when I was training for combat, and when I wanted to fly on the shuttle. Confidence was my parents' greatest gift. Nothing could take it from me.
This nation could have given up at the sound of that little beep beep beep doing what we'd failed to do in 1957. Instead, we pushed ahead. I might have given up at being told I wouldn't be able to live my dreams. I didn't, and neither should you. Never give up. Never.
I had a moment of free time now and then while looking down from orbit over the earth, riding the space shuttle along the same trajectory as Sputnik and Gagarin, taking the same step that the astronauts before me took to the moon and that the ones to come will take on their way to the stars, to think about the confidence my folks gave me. I knew that that's what put me there. Imagine where it might take you.
Guy Bluford, Jr., Ph.D., spent fifteen years with NASA as one of its elite astronauts. The first African-American in space, he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997. Today Dr. Bluford serves as president of the Aerospace Technology Group (ATG), an aerospace technology and business consulting organization, and conducts a very active civic life.
JOE MASSENGALE was seven years old when his father left the house one morning to confront Jim Craig over an unpaid debt. Joe's whole life might have changed that day.
"People were murdered for nothing all the time," Joe remembers. "There wasn't any protection for Black folks then. It could happen to any of us in a moment. I remember one man who died by mistake. They thought he'd taken up with a White woman. The killers murdered his brother and left a note: 'Sorry, we got the wrong one.'
"Mister Jim Craig had taken money my dad had earned from growing cotton. Now, Papa was a friendly man, smiling and cheerful. He loved people and mixed easy. But he was a straight man and he had a family to feed, and you couldn't cross him that way. And he was furious. My mother tried to keep him at home--'Hugh, don't you go down there!'--but he left our house and went into Marshall. I followed him."
The confrontation occurred at the most dangerous possible place, the Harrison County Courthouse in the center of town.
"Courthouse Square was where the White men pulled their wagons up and gathered to talk and smoke during the day," Joe says. "Blacks didn't gather here except on Saturday afternoon. There might have been other Black men there that day. But it wouldn't have made any difference.
"There was old Mister Jim, in a straw hat and khaki suit. My father said, 'Mister Jim, I want the money you got from selling my cotton.' Mister Jim said, 'Nigger, get on out of here.' And my daddy knocked him to his knees.
"Around there they lynched Black men who hit a White man. They'd hang them from a tree by the Courthouse and leave the body up overnight. The newspaper would take a picture of it to remind Black folks just what was what around there. And the men ran up and shouted, 'Let's kill this nigger.'"
By 1861, when Texas seceded from the Union, Marshall was one of the largest and most prosperous communities in the state. Known as "the Athens of Texas," it was the cradle of many of the state's most important leaders, a rail center for the nation west of the Mississippi and a key producer of military leadership and supplies for the Confederacy.
Secessionist spirits ran high there. Texas's first and last Confederate governors were from Marshall. The town served as the Confederate capital of the state of Missouri when Missouri itself declined to join the cause. After the fall of Vicksburg in 1863, Marshall was the administrative center of the C.S.A. government in the far west.
The Civil War records of the Texas Republican, a local newspaper, tell of Marshall teenagers forming military units and drilling to fight, and of the local women trading recipes for homemade substitutes so they could ship the best food and cloth to the soldiers. Marshall folk learned to tan leather and make cloth shoes so they could get along without imports from the factories in New England. They spun thread and made dyes to weave their own cloth, and turned all their old rags and bedding into first-aid supplies. "Don't forget to save garden seeds," the paper advised, "for if the war continues, it will be impossible to get them next year. Besides, we must, in any event, learn to live without the North." Lincoln was hanged in effigy in Marshall in 1861--"thus," said the newspaper, "would the Abolition President himself be served were he to enter a Southern state."
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who had served in Congress for Georgia before secession, told listeners in Savannah in 1861 how the new government of the South would be an improvement over the old one. The United States government, he said, had been built "upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'
"Our new government," Stephens said, "is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery--subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."
Marshall held the largest population of slaves in Texas, Joe Massengale's great-grandparents among them.
The last battle of the Civil War was fought in Texas, at Palmito Ranch east of Brownsville. About three hundred Confederate soldiers led by Colonel John Solomon Ford engaged two Union African-American infantry regiments and a company of cavalry soldiers fighting on foot. The skirmish happened on May 12-13, 1865, more than a month after the formal end of hostilities. The Confederates won. The Union prisoners told them that Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox five weeks earlier.
The war was over. The fight went on.
Before Marshall native Governor Pendleton Murrah fled Texas for Mexico with other C.S.A. officials in 1865, he issued a broadside insisting to his fellow Texans that "you cannot look for relief from emancipation, nor to those other weak and wicked delusions--reconstruction, or a foreign protectorate." Murrah's hometown became a Union base and home to a post of The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen's Bureau. Wiley College was founded in Marshall in 1873 to educate the liberated slaves who came to seek a new chance in life. The post-Civil War era brought prosperity to the city, when the voters subsidized a new rail hub for Jay Gould's Texas and Pacific, the eastern end of a proposed line running from Texas to San Diego. Marshall was a busy cotton depot, home to East Texas's first department store, J. Weisman and Co., opened in 1878, the same year Walter Paye Lane, an Irish-born resident and storekeeper who had been an early volunteer on behalf of Texas in 1861 and who rose to brigadier general in service to the rebellion, led a White supremacist "Citizens Party" in taking control of Marshall, declaring it "redeemed" from its role in the reconstructed Union.
The Harrison County Courthouse, where Joe Massengale watched the angry men surround his father that day, was a beautiful domed structure of golden brick and pink Texas granite, in the center of a broad plaza of hand-laid brick pavement built at the turn of the twentieth century. Decades after the Civil War, the old spirit of the slave days still ran high in Marshall. On the side opposite the spot where Hugh Massengale's life was threatened, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had placed a statue of a young Rebel with musket in 1905, with the inscription "The love, gratitude, and memory of the people of the South shall hold their name in one eternal sunshine" and a poem on the south face of the pedestal:
Soldier, you in the wreck of gray
With the brazen belt of the CSA
Take our love and our tears to-day,
Take them, all we have to give
And by God's help while our heart shall live
It shall keep in its faithful way
The camp-fires lit for the men in gray
And the silver bugles of heaven play
As the roll is called at judgment day.
The Jim Crow years, Hugh Massengale's time, were a deadly era for Texas Blacks. Over 450 victims were lynched in the state during Hugh's lifetime, the overwhelming majority of them African-American. One of the worst concentrations of such killings was Harrison County, and one of the preferred places to make an example of a Black man who got out of line was this very spot on the Courthouse grounds where the men surrounded Hugh as Joe watched. The hanging tree was a pecan, the Texas state tree.
"Mister John Sanders was the sheriff," Joe remembers. "He rode up on horseback. It was sheer luck that he was close enough to make a difference. He saw the crowd, saw Mister Jim Craig laying on the ground. He said, 'What's goin' on around this place?'
"'This nigger hit Mister Jim,' somebody said, 'and we're gonna kill him!'
"Sheriff Sanders saw my dad and said, 'No . . . no, don't you do that. I know this nigger.' He had to say 'nigger'; he couldn't call my father a man. A nigger wasn't a man. Sheriff Sanders said, 'Mister Jim had to have done something to this nigger. He had to. Hugh Massengale don't bother nobody.'
"'Nigger,' he told my dad, 'you go on home to your family. Mister Jim, you go on home too.' The White men objected: 'We gon' kill him, nigger hit a White man!' They wanted to get a rope. Sheriff Sanders said, 'No. If it had been any other nigger I'd say go on and lynch him, but Hugh Massengale don't cause no trouble. You all go on home. Go on.' And thank God, that was the end of it."
"We did what we had to do," Joe says. "My dad grew corn and cotton, sharecropping thirds and fourths, it was called: splitting what he grew in thirds and fourths with the owner of the farm. If you supplied all your own mules and wagons and all, you got more. If the owner of the farm supplied the animals and the wagons, you got less, maybe half. My dad always worked on thirds or fourths, not halves. He'd want to keep most of what he grew. Twenty-five dollars for a bale of cotton that might have taken him a year to grow. He earned it.
"We had to move from place to place around the area. One day Dad loaded up all we had in a ten-dollar wagon. We were passing by a vacant house on Hezzie Cook Road on the way to my grandmother's. He knocked on the door and nobody came, and well, we just moved in. Got some water from the well, some soap; we scrubbed the place and patched up the windows and slept on the floor that night. We stayed there three years.
"My dad made seven dollars and fifty cents a week as a contractor, when the work was there. My family could eat a week or even two on that. A sack of meal cost a quarter. Flour was fifty cents for forty pounds. You raised your greens in the backyard. He'd carry a sack of flour and a twenty-five-pound sack of sugar home seven or eight miles. We were glad to have it. He'd buy five bullets a week and get up before dawn every morning and come back with a rabbit or a squirrel. My mother would make some biscuits and gravy for us. Some weeks the work wasn't there, but he'd say, We'll make some money someplace. We all went to work. He hired his sons out to work on farms for different people, filing saws, cutting wood. We got by.
From the Hardcover edition.