Inside 88-year-old Ed Dwight’s art studio in Denver, Colorado, is a collection of stories told through the sculptures he creates.
But before Dwight became an artist dedicated to memorializing notable figures in black history, he had hopes of making history of his own in space.
Dwight was among one of the first African Americans who participated in an Air Force training program from which NASA selected astronauts. He was popular among many, including former President John F. Kennedy — who wanted to send a Black astronaut into space.
Dwight recalled the first time he learned he may get to go to space.
“When I got this letter, November the 4th, 1961, offering me this opportunity to be the first negro astronaut, I thought these dudes were crazy,” he said, laughing, to “CBS Mornings” national correspondent Jericka Duncan.
“What, why me? I mean, what in the world is this all about? You know? And I said, ‘No.’ I mean, my first reaction to it was, ‘This is the nuttiest thing I ever heard.'”
Dwight was a 27-year-old Air Force pilot at the time. He said his mother had to be the one to convince him to take the leap of faith.
“I consulted my mother. My mother’s tellin’ me about all this stuff, stuff that I could do as a symbol, you know, and all those things that a mother would tell her son about, you know, ‘You’re being offered this great opportunity. Think of all the kids you’ll get excited about this and how you’ll help the race,'” he recalled.
As the first African-American astronaut candidate, Dwight was considered a hero to the black community.
He toured the country promoting his newfound journey. But once he got to Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, he faced discrimination among his peers.
“So, all these White folks that I’m dealing with, I mean, my peers, the other guys that were astronaut candidates and the leadership was just horrified at the idea of my coming down to Edwards and the president appointing me to the position,” Dwight said.
To his peers, Dwight said, he was known as the “Kennedy boy.” Despite this, Dwight remained in the program for four additional years but was never selected to go to space.
With his astronaut dreams dashed, Dwight left the Air Force in 1966, to work at IBM. He later and started a construction company.
Dwight would bring home leftover scraps from his construction company and start to learn how to weld. He would create art pieces and decorate his apartment with his new art creations.
His friends would take note of his new hobby — including Colorado’s first Black Lt. Gov. George Brown, who saw Dwight’s work and encouraged him to pursue it seriously.
Brown even asked Dwight to be the artist behind a proposed sculpture of Brown that would be displayed in the state capital.
The sculpture of Brown would be Dwight’s first commissioned piece, but it would not be his last. Since then, Dwight has created nearly 20,000 gallery pieces and more than 130 memorials across the country honoring those hidden figures of Black history.
He says his favorite memorial sits proudly at the Texas state capitol and pays homage to the storied history of African Americans in the Lone Star state.
“There’s 200 images of people on that Texas memorial. Then they all have different personalities and different dreams. And I wanted to put that in their faces,” Dwight said.
He may not have been the first Black man in space, but Dwight said it does not bug him because he has found a new mission on earth.
“No, it doesn’t bother me… As a matter of fact, I found it was a great opportunity,” said Dwight. “That’s why I got all this stuff here. And all the little parts and pieces of everything you see in the studio and all those buildings down there is a manifestation of what I learned in the years that I was in that program.