DU Alumni Weekend: Spotlight on Distinguished Alum Ed Dwight, Jr.

We are coming up on DU’s Alumni Weekend 2021, May 12 – 16. That makes this a perfect time to introduce you to one of DU’s most fascinating Pioneers. He was a man selected and trained by the Kennedy Administration to be the first black astronaut but his dreams of space travel were unrealized. He became a local Denver businessman, entrepreneur and, ultimately, found his calling as a world-renowned artist. His name is Ed Dwight, Jr. and he graduated from the University of Denver with a Master’s degree in his true passion.

While his accomplishments are many, few people may actually know about the amazing journey of Ed Dwight, Jr. Ironically, his attempt to enter outer space may have been trumped by his success as an artist, addressing some of society’s most pressing social issues.

Born in Kansas City, Dwight was an artist at an early age and by 14, Dwight had a studio in his Kansas City house that his father had built for him. Dwight earned enough money from selling the art pieces that he was able to buy his first car with the money. Growing up on a farm near a local airfield, he also frequently visited the tarmac to sketch the World War II planes that used it as a stop-off. That marked the beginning of Dwights interest in flight.

He enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1953 and took night classes at Arizona State University. In 1957, he graduated cum laude with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering.

Photo: Wikipedia

In 1961, aided by Dr. Martin Luther King’s burgeoning influence and the growing civil rights movement, Dwight was hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to become the first-ever African-American astronaut. He was a skilled Air Force aeronautical engineer and on the Pentagon’s upper-management fast-track when he was handpicked by his supervisors for space flight. Dwight started his astronaut training at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, under the guidance of legendary test pilot Chuck Yaeger.

He was met by resistance from peers, supervisors, and the general public. He told The Denver Post, “These guys — I call them the forces of darkness — came in with all kinds of medical and intellectual questions about black people’s physiology and intelligence,” he said. “They did studies and presented them to the White House and Congress saying my capabilities weren’t even in the ballpark. It was incredibly controversial and political.” Said Dwight of the times, “most of the (documentaries) tell this happy-happy tale where we get ready, go to space, come back and everything is just wonderful. This is a different way into that story, and a different story altogether.”

Photo: The New York Times

Dwight trained on the ground and in the air flying experimental aircraft and undergoing a battery of tests designed to establish his overall demeanor, problem-solving skills, and preparedness for space. His dreams were shortly derailed when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and a new administration under Lyndon B. Johnson selected a different African-American pilot (Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.) to become the first black astronaut in space. Space travel or not, Dwight holds the claim of America’s first black astronaut candidate. By 1966, a disillusioned Dwight left the space program, ready to face new challenges.

Undeterred, the naturally industrious and restless Dwight gravitated toward a technical career in the private sector, moving to Denver in 1966 to work for IBM as an engineer. Not cut out for the restraints of the corporate world, Dwight eventually gravitated to the restaurant business. Dwight told a chain of barbecue restaurants called The Rib Cage, the first location at Larimer Square.

Dwight’s quest for challenges included other business ventures in Denver including a successful real estate firm. Ultimately, by the mid-1970s Dwight’s heart had drifted back to the arts and opening his own studio. “I started out as an artist,” Dwight told the Denver Post, “I was born to make art.”

In 1974, Dwight was commissioned to create a sculpture of Colorado’s first African-American Lt. Governor, George Brown, which quickly led to more commissions that highlight the role of black pioneers in the American West. Art studies at DU further developed his passion for art and sculpture and eventually, he completed his Master of Fine Arts from the University in 1977.

Many of Dwight’s pieces involve civil rights with a focus on the themes of slavery, emancipation, and post-reconstruction. He was commissioned by the Colorado Centennial Commission to create a series of bronze sculptures featuring black pioneers “Black Frontier in the American West”. Soon after his completion of his “Black Frontier in the American West” exhibit. he was commissioned for both public and private projects nationwide.

Ed Dwight Studios - Memorials Index
Photo: Ed Dwight Studios – Texas History Memorial, Austin, Texas

Dwight, a University of Denver treasure at 87, persevered and has led a multitude of successful professional endeavors to become the ultimate Pioneer, never afraid to literally or figuratively reach for the stars. Ironically, none of his grand pieces are displayed on the campus of the University of Denver.

Dwight still owns and operates Ed Dwight Studios, based in Denver. Its 25,000 sq. ft. facility houses a studio, gallery, foundry, and a large collection of research material. The gallery and studio are open to the public at 3824 Dahlia St., Denver, CO 80207. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we were unable to personally visit his studio.

When you think of distinguished Denver alumni, don’t forget to add the amazing Ed Dwight, Jr. to the list.

As a reminder, OneDay4DU falls on Wednesday, May 19th this year. Please consider donating to your chosen passion at DU or select from the many crowdfunding projects offered up by the University of Denver.

Top photo: The Denver Post
Source Material: Wikipedia, The Denver Post and Ed Dwight Website

5 thoughts on “DU Alumni Weekend: Spotlight on Distinguished Alum Ed Dwight, Jr.”

  1. Dunker thanks LGDU for the history of a great pioneer, Ed Dwight Jr. His accomplishments are many. Quite a life he is living. I’m baffled none of his art is displayed at DU. Hopefully this article shakes someone up in DU’s Art School.

  2. Dwight as an astronaut candidate [never inducted into NASA] earned honor for his inspirational role, as did full-fledged black astronaut Robert Lawrence picked on full merit a few years later. In my analysis as a space program veteran and spaceflight historian, Dwight had too many too heavy loads to struggle with that had nothing to do with bigotry, since the White House required him to take three day weekends DURING the ‘aerospace research pilot’ training in 1963 for national speaking engagements promoting JFK policies, while the other pilots spent full time on classes, books, and flying [his final class standing was 8th out of 16]. Dwight’s expected White House backing failed to persuade NASA to pick him on public relations grounds [he admits he did not rate high enough on technical merit but blames this on the impact of his White-House-demanded publicity campaigns — a plausible explanation]. The AF put him on their list of nominees for the 1963 selection but after consideration NASA did not even invite him to Houston for final interviews [only the top 2 of his ARPS class were finally selected]. Kennedy’s death the following month obviously had nothing to do with the already-made NASA decision. In addition to his class standing and massive White-House-imposed public relations distractions, NASA’s decision could also have been based on physical stature: at 5’03” he was three inches shorter than the minimum design spec for pilot height for the Apollo Lunar Module, requiring he carry a footstool onto any moon-landing mission he might have been assigned to.

    1. Thanks for providing some interesting texture to Dwight’s story. Very interesting.

  3. That was more than texture – that’s a comment from a noted American expert space journalist and a former NASA engineer.

    Thank you, Mr. Oberg.

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