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Barbara H.C. Lawrence, widow of black aerospace pioneer

Barbara Lawrence pushed for recognition for her late husband — dubbed the first African-American astronaut by the U.S. Air Force — after his death in a 1967 pilot training exercise.

Thanks to lobbying from Mrs. Lawrence and others, the name of Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was added to a fallen astronauts’ memorial at the Kennedy Space Center.

Mrs. Lawrence, 78, died of heart failure on Feb. 20 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said their son, Tracey Lawrence. She struggled with multiple medical problems after a Nov. 15 crash when she lost control of her car.

She grew up Barbara Henrine Cress Lawrence, the daughter of Dr. Henry N. Cress and Ida Mae Griffin Cress, a teacher with the Chicago Board of Education.

She attended Hyde Park High School and was presented at a debutante ball, her son said. She completed college at Roosevelt University.

Barbara Cress met her future husband at a party in 1952. “She was waiting for her parents to come and pick her up, and they were late, and this young man saw she was alone, waiting, and he waited with her,” their son said.

Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was called the nation’s first African-American astronaut. | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo
Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was called the nation’s first African-American astronaut. | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo

Robert H. Lawrence graduated at 16 from Englewood High. At 20, he earned a chemistry degree from Bradley University. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Ohio State.

They married in 1958 in Germany, where he was stationed with the Air Force. They were a happy couple with a shared love of jazz. On their last vacation before the major’s death, the Lawrences visited San Francisco, where they enjoyed a performance by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring vibraphonist Milt Jackson.

In June 1967, “Major Lawrence was the first African-American selected to be an astronaut,” said William P. Barry, chief historian for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Air Force tapped him for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program, which was created to establish a military space station.

But six months later, as a “back-seater” who was training another pilot, he died in a crash at California’s Edwards Air Force base, said Jim Oberg, a former NBC-TV space analyst.

The training flight “helped lay the groundwork for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a 2012 speech at Bradley University. “I am proud that in 1997 his name was added to the Kennedy Space Center Space Mirror Memorial for astronauts who died in the line of duty.”

Major Robert H. Lawrence | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo
Major Robert H. Lawrence | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo

But Robert H. Lawrence was initially rejected for the Space Mirror, a decision some called racism. Officials at the memorial said the Air Force didn’t consider him an astronaut because he never made a flight at least 50 miles above Earth.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was cancelled in 1969, and trainees were offered transfers to NASA. “Hence, the assumption that he would have made it to space,” Barry said.

Mrs. Lawrence and other relatives pushed for his inclusion at the memorial. Oberg and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill, got involved, as did the Clinton White House.

“At a certain level, it’s very hard to deal with this,” Mrs. Lawrence told the Chicago Sun-Times at the time. “You know what he accomplished and you know he’s qualified. To have a bunch of people saying, ‘No, he doesn’t qualify,’ that gets you angry.”

Six years after its 1991 dedication, Robert H. Lawrence’s name was added to the memorial.

“She was regal and she was very commanding and articulate,” Rush said. “She was a person who I really admired and respected.”

Mrs. Lawrence was “just a courageous and classy woman who bore her sorrows nobly,” Oberg said.

Barbara H.C. Lawrence (right) at the Space Mirror memorial when the name of her husband, Major Robert H. Lawrence, was added. On her left: her husband’s sister, Barbara E. Lawrence, and his mother, Gwendolyn Duncan. | Sun-Times file photo
Barbara H.C. Lawrence (right) at the Space Mirror memorial when the name of her husband, Major Robert H. Lawrence, was added. On her left: her husband’s sister, Barbara E. Lawrence, and his mother, Gwendolyn Duncan. | Sun-Times file photo

After her husband’s death, she worked for the Model Cities Program and at the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training until her retirement.

She suffered another blow in 1993, when she lost a companion, New York real estate executive George M. Brooker, to leukemia.

Elegant and outgoing, Mrs. Lawrence loved the singing of Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Sarah Vaughan.

She also is survived by a sister, Lorne Cress Love. Another sister, psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing, who drew attention for her writings on race and racism, died on Jan. 2. In a tweet, Chuck D credited her for inspiring Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” A memorial service for Mrs. Lawrence is being planned.

Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (second from left) “was the first African-American selected to be an astronaut, said William P. Barry, chief historian for NASA. | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo
Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (second from left) “was the first African-American selected to be an astronaut, said William P. Barry, chief historian for NASA. | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo
African-American aerospace pioneer Robert H. Lawrence, an Air Force major. | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo
African-American aerospace pioneer Robert H. Lawrence, an Air Force major. | Astronauts Memorial Foundation photo