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History rewritten as first black astronaut honored

December 8, 1997

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Let the history books now show that before there was Guy Bluford, Ron McNair or Mae Jemison, there was Air Force Maj. Robert Lawrence Jr., America’s first black astronaut.

Thirty years to the day after his death in a jet crash, Lawrence was recognized officially Monday as an astronaut.

In a ceremony replete with Air Force and NASA honors, his name was added to the astronauts’ memorial. The move came after a long bureaucratic dispute over the definition of an astronaut.

``History being rewritten _ and corrected,″ said his widow, Barbara Lawrence of Chicago.

``It was a long time coming,″ added Beverly Lawrence Franklin, a cousin from Gary, Ind. ``But we’re glad we finally got it.″

``Amen!″ said Franklin’s daughter, Charmaine Burns.

The 32-year-old test pilot never flew the required 50 miles up to earn his Air Force astronaut’s wings.

But he was a member of the Air Force’s manned orbiting laboratory program, and had he lived, he probably would have transferred over to NASA, as many of his colleagues did after the Air Force canceled the program in 1969.

More than 350 people _ including nearly 50 family members from around the country, with the notable exception of Lawrence’s only child _ gathered for the ceremony at the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror.

``Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr., an outstanding American, scholar, pilot and, yes, astronaut,″ announced Jim De Santis, president of the foundation, a private organization formed after the 1986 Challenger disaster to honor astronauts killed on the job.

Lawrence was killed on Dec. 8, 1967, in the crash of an F-104 fighter during a training exercise.

More than 10 years passed before NASA named its first black astronauts. Bluford became the first black American in space in 1983. McNair was No. 2 in 1984 and died aboard Challenger in 1986. Jemison became the first black woman in space in 1992.

Because the Astronauts Memorial Foundation refused to recognize Lawrence as an astronaut until the Air Force did so formally, his name was barred from the four-story, granite Space Mirror.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., intervened last year, saying Lawrence’s omission was a matter of ``institutional racism.″ He persuaded the Air Force to recognize Lawrence as an astronaut last January, and the foundation voted two weeks later to add his name.

Lawrence’s son, 38-year-old Tracey, stayed away from the ceremony because of what he considered antagonism toward his father on the part of the foundation.

Lawrence ``was a long-distance runner,″ said former astronaut Charles Bolden, the fourth black American in space. ``So I’m certain that as he looks down on us on Earth, he’d figured he’d get there sooner or later.″

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