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Charles Smoot

February 25, 2019

The National Society of Black Physicists honors Charles Smoot.

charles smootCharles Smoot is a native of Anniston, Alabama and a 1952 graduate of Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama and became a teacher.

Smoot came to Huntsville in 1963 when his wife took a position teaching mathematics at Alabama A&M University. Smoot applied at NASA initially because the pay was better and was hired as a GS-5, making only $5500 a year. Fortunately for him, NASA applied “the normalization risk, the acceptance of failure, and the anticipation of trouble” to its personnel operations. Someone got the idea that it made sense to send black recruiters to black schools to talk to potential black recruits. During this time and in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement, the agency took steps to promote equal employment, creating “a contractors’ group in Alabama that used its money and influence to make sure African-Americans got space jobs. Once the decision was made, Smoot got a promotion and became “the first Negro recruiter in government service” to travel the nation persuading black scientists and engineers to come south and work for the He was employed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at NASA. Smoot began laying the foundation of a cooperative program targeting qualified African American students from universities across the nation.

In the fall of 1963, Smoot helped establish a program between Marshall and Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana which at the time was one of only six Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States with accredited engineering departments. The Marshall Space Flight Center invited representatives of the historically black colleges to Huntsville in 1963, and a year later opened the agency’s college cooperative education program—in which students alternated semesters at school with semesters at Marshall—to blacks. As a result, Walter Applewhite, Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield, Frank C. Williams Jr., and Morgan Watson arrived at Marshall to become the embodiment of Johnson’s plan for jobs in the South. The seven were given exams, though Smoot reports that none of the white students who found jobs at NASA through the Co-Op program were required to take them. Once the agency was convinced the students were eligible, they were hired.
From 1963 forward, Smoot continued to travel to schools across the country from Michigan to Puerto Rico recruiting students in the fields of engineering, physics, and mathematics. Over his many years, Smoot established key contacts with professors, students, advisors, department heads, and placement directors that held the door open for African Americas to gain access to jobs that had previously remained out of reach in the South.