Local astronaut finally honored for his landmark efforts

By The Columbia Chronicle

Maria Ferrari

Staff Writer

After 30 years of fighting for the right to be recognized, Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. has finally received the honor he deserved. Admired for achieving the status of a scholar, a pilot and a scientist, Lawrence was recognized for being the first black astronaut. A Chicago native, he was killed in an aircraft accident on Dec. 8, 1967. He was a leader who will always be remembered for giving his life for future astronauts.

On Oct. 10, the Chicago Public Library presented the program “African Americans in Space: Past, Present and Future” to honor Lawrence. Although the road to receiving this recognition was continuously uphill, Barbara Cress Lawrence, the major’s widow, said it was well worth it. About 25 people crowded the Carter G. Woodson library auditorium awaiting the presentation. The room was completely filled with history. In the back row of the auditorium sat a Pearl Harbor survivor, a World War II and Korean War veteran, and an officer of the United States Navy.

The presentation began with a prayer and a song to welcome every visitor. Mrs. Lawrence then walked toward the stage carrying the silence of the room with her. She was a very warm person and spoke from her heart during her speech. She held her head high displaying respect for her husband, who represented the “past” of this program. Mrs. Lawrence also showed respect for those who helped her gain recognition for her husband, including Congressmen Bobby Rush and James Oberg, who served in the Air Force with Lawrence. Without the help of these individuals and the Lawrence family, she said, her husband’s name could never have been added to the Memorial Plaque. Her speech concluded with a presentation of an award from Col. Thomas J. Day honoring, not only the major, but Mrs. Lawrence’s efforts as well.

The “present” was represented by Joan E. Higginbotham, a NASA astronaut. Her speech was accompanied by many slides displaying her experiences. This presentation was not only insightful, but it grabbed the audience’s attention. Higginbotham had been with NASA for 11 years, and after two interviews she was chosen out of 4,000 applicants to describe future space expeditions, such as those that will be launched in the year 2000. She shared many things, including the preparations for traveling in a space shuttle, the training to survive in zero gravity, and the manual that all astronauts must study.

If Lawrence had lived to attend this presentation, he would have been very happy and proud. As expressed in the program many times, Lawrence is a success story of the Chicago public school system. He is a role model for many and will be remembered for fulfilling his dreams.