By Guy Brandenburg
Recently, while preparing to give a talk at this year’s Stellafane telescope-makers’ convention, I was disappointed to discover that the National Capital Astronomers (NCA), which I’ve belonged to for about 30 years, specifically excluded Black members for nearly 3 decades: from about 1940 all the way up to1969.
But NCA didn’t start out being overtly racist. Our original 1937 founding document has no such language. It reads, in part,
“The particular business and objects of [the NCA] shall be the education and mutual improvement of its members in the science of Astronomy and the encouragement of an interest in this science among others. (…) The activities of this Association are designed for the enjoyment and cultural profit of all interested in astronomy, whether the member be a beginner, an advanced student, or one whose pursuit of the science is necessarily desultory.”
And today’s NCA home page reads, “All are welcome to join. Everyone who looks up to the sky with wonder is an astronomer and welcomed by NCA. You do not have to own a telescope, but if you do own one that is fine, too. You do not have to be deeply knowledgeable in astronomy, but if you are knowledgeable in astronomy that is fine, too. You do not have to have a degree, but if you do that is fine, too. WE ARE THE MOST DIVERSE local ASTRONOMY CLUB anywhere. Come to our meetings and you will find this out. WE REALLY MEAN THIS!”
But in the 1940’s, the original open-minded and scientific NCA membership policy changed. The January 1946 Star Dust listed a number of changes to be voted on by the membership in the club’s founding documents. (See https://capitalastronomers.org/SD_year/1946/StarDust_1946_01.pdf ) The organization voted to change article III of its constitution as follows:
“only Caucasians over 16 years old are eligible for membership.”
“to include all ages (see by-laws), exclude only the Black race.”
While it may be shocking that a scientific organization like NCA had such a policy, people often forget how racist a nation the USA used to be, and for how long. If you look up actual pages of DC area newspapers from the 1950s, you will note that the classified advertisements were largely segregated both by race and by gender – want ads would very often specify male or female, single or married, White-only or Colored-only jobs, apartments, and so on.
Schools in DC, MD, and Virginia were mostly segregated, either by law or in practice, up until the late 1960s or early 1970s. The 1954 Brown v Board decision had very little real impact in most areas until much, much later. Queens (NYC), PG County (MD) and Boston (MA) had violent movements against integrating schools in the 1970s. I know because I attended demonstrations against those racists and have some scars to prove it.
While the Federal and DC governments offices were integrated immediately after the Civil War, that changed for the worse when Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912.
Many scientists in the USA and in Europe believed the pseudo-scientific ideas of racial superiority and eugenics that arose around 1900 and were still widespread 50 years ago – and even today, as recent events have sadly shown.
In The War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Edwin Black explains how august scientific institutions like the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW), the American Natural History Museum in New York, and a number of eminent statisticians and biologists for many decades supported the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor. So did the fabulously wealthy Rockefeller and Harriman Foundations.
The ERO pushed the concept of the genetic superiority of the ‘Nordic’ race and helped to pass State laws sterilizing the ‘weak’ and forbidding interracial marriage. They were also successful in passing the 1924 Federal immigration law that severely cut back immigration from parts of the world where supposedly ‘inferior’ people lived – e.g. Eastern and Southern Europe. As a result, many Jews who would have loved to escape Hitler’s ovens by crossing the Atlantic never made it.
Hitler and his acolytes always acknowledged their ideological and procedural debt to American eugenical laws, literature, and propaganda. As we all know, Germany’s Nazis put those ideas to work murdering millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and others.
It took more than three decades for the CIW to withdraw their support of the ERO. A CIW committee concluded in 1935 “that the Eugenics Record Office was a worthless endeavor from top to bottom, yielding no real data, and that eugenics itself was not a science but rather a social propaganda campaign with no discernable value to the science of either genetics or human heredity.” (Black, p. 390) The members pointedly compared the work of the ERO to the excesses of Nazi Germany. However, it took four more years for CIW to cut all their ties – shortly after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, starting World War Two.
I don’t know exactly when the ‘Caucasian’-only policy became part of the NCA rules, but it seems to have been between the club founding in 1937, and October 1943 when volume 1, number 1 of Star Dust was printed. At one point, perhaps around 1940, NCA decided that only ‘Caucasians’ over 16 could join. But as indicated above, in 1946, the racial exclusion policy was narrowed to only exclude Black people. Apparently Jews, Italians, young people, Latin Americans, and Asians were eligible to join NCA from 1946 to 1969. But not African-Americans.
While researching my talk, I found that the NCA held amateur telescope-making classes at a number of all-white DC, MD, and VA high schools, from the 1940s through about 1970, both during the days of de jure segregation and the merely de-facto type: McKinley, Roosevelt, Central, Bladensburg, Falls Church, and McLean high schools are listed. While Star Dust mentions a telescope-making course at (the largely-Black) Howard University in 1946, there is no mention of any assistance for that course from NCA.
I also found no evidence in any issue of Star Dust from that era that anybody at the time raised any vocal objections to racial exclusion. Not in 1946, nor 23 years later when the rule prohibiting Black members was quietly dropped (in 1969) when a new constitution was adopted.
A few current or past NCA members confirmed to me that at some point, they noticed that racist language and privately wondered about it. One person told me that they definitely recalled some now-deceased NCA members who were openly racist and not shy about expressing those views. Others told me that they had never heard any discussion of the subject at all.
(As one who grew up in DC and Montgomery County, and attended essentially-segregated public schools there, I am sorry that neither I nor my family actively spoke up at the time, even though a farm adjacent to ours in Clarksburg was owned by a Black family [with no school-age children at the time]. Amazing how blind one can be! The racists of those days were not shy about committing violence to achieve their ends. Fear might be one reason for silence.)
One possibility is that some of the early NCA meetings might have been held at private residences; perhaps some of the racist members insisted in preventing non-‘Caucasian’ or ‘Black’ people from attending. It is too bad the other NCA members didn’t take the other route and stay true to the original ideas of the club, and tell the racist members to get lost.
Very ironic: the late George Carruthers, a celebrated Naval Research Labs and NASA scientist, and an instrument-maker for numerous astronomical probes and satellites, gave a talk to the NCA in September of 1970 – not too long after the NCA apparently dropped its racist membership rules (April, 1969). So, a mere year and a half before he gave his talk, he could not have legally joined the organization. Nor could he have done so when he was making his own telescopes from scratch as a teenager in the 1940s. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Robert_Carruthers on the life and work of this great African-American scientist and inventor.
To NCA’s credit, we have done better in the past few decades at encouraging participation in telescope viewing parties, telescope making, and lectures by members of all races and ethnic groups. However, I often find that not very many NCA members bring telescopes to viewing events, or show up to judge science fairs, in mostly-minority neighborhoods. Often, it’s just me. That needs to change. We need to encourage an interest in science, astronomy, and the universe in children and the public no matter their skin color or national origin, and we need to combat the racist twaddle that passes for eugenics.
I anticipate that NCA will have a formal vote repudiating the club’s former unscientific and racist policies and behavior. I hope we will redouble our efforts to promote the study of astronomy to members of all ethnic groups, especially those historically under-represented in science.
We could do well to note the words that Albert Einstein wrote in 1946, after he had been living in the US for a decade, and the same year that NCA confirmed that Black people could not join:
“a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes.
The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.
Many a sincere person will answer: “Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by living side by side with Negroes in this country. They are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.”
I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception. Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.
The ancient Greeks also had slaves. They were not Negroes but white men who had been taken captive in war. There could be no talk of racial differences. And yet Aristotle, one of the great Greek philosophers, declared slaves inferior beings who were justly subdued and deprived of their liberty. It is clear that he was enmeshed in a traditional prejudice from which, despite his extraordinary intellect, he could not free himself.
What, however, can the man of good will do to combat this deeply rooted prejudice? He must have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.
I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed. But until this goal is reached there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.”
I am indebted to Morgan Aronson, Nancy Byrd, Richard Byrd, Geoff Chester, Jeff Guerber, Jay Miller, Jeffrey Norman, Rachel Poe, Todd Supple, Wayne Warren, Elizabeth Warner, and Harold Williams for documents, memories, and/or technical support.