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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

From the Space Shuttle to Structural Engineering, NIST’s Tuskegee Airmen Left a Lasting Legacy in Service and Science

Collage includes four historical photos of Black men in military and office attire on background of gold, green, black and red.
Four known Tuskegee Airmen later worked as researchers at the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST). From left: Edgar L. Bolden (center in the far left photo), James O. Bryson (top center), James E. Fearn (bottom center) and William Henry Maurice "Moe" Thomas Jr.
Credit: N. Hanacek/NIST with photos courtesy of Bolden Family/FAA, NIST Archives, Kathleen Fearn-Banks, Helen Goode

Jeffrey Horlick was a junior employee at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) — now known as NIST — in the 1960s when he met James O. Bryson, the leader of one of NBS’s divisions. Though the two men were acquaintances, Horlick had no idea Bryson was part of American history before he started working at NBS. 

“I didn’t know Jim was a Tuskegee Airman until I read his obituary,” said Horlick, who is now a historian for NIST’s alumni association. 

The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of nearly 1,000 aviators (and thousands more military and civilian support personnel), were the first Black service personnel in the U.S. Air Force (then known as the Army Air Corps) during World War II. 

Four of these men are now known to have continued their careers at NBS, though colleagues at the time didn’t know about their co-workers’ historic past. 

In honor of Black History Month, we look back at their careers and impact on science. Their service to the nation continued long after they left the military. 

Edgar L. Bolden 

Born in 1921 in Arlington, Virginia, Edgar Lewis Bolden registered for the draft in 1942. He joined the Tuskegee Airmen as a replacement pilot, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), meaning he deployed to replace airmen returning from war. Bolden’s plane was shot down over Linz, Austria, in 1945, and he was briefly held as a prisoner of war. 

Historical photo shows three men in military aviation gear standing in front of a barracks.
Edgar L. Bolden (center) at the Tuskegee Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, in a photo dated 1943.
Credit: Bolden Family/Federal Aviation Administration

After his service, Bolden attended the Howard University College of Engineering, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. He specialized in space and defense communications systems during his career, according to his obituary.

NIST records show Bolden worked in the Ordnance Electronics Division in 1953. The lab’s scientists worked to develop trigger devices for bombs, rockets and mortar shells. Researchers at this facility developed a proximity fuze, a crucial weapons advancement during World War II, according to Horlick. 

Bolden’s division became part of the U.S. Army in 1954 and was renamed the Diamond Ordnance Fuze Laboratories, in honor of radio engineer Harry Diamond, its first director. 

Proximity fuzes developed in World War II triggered explosions by their proximity to the target

“Anyone who worked at the Diamond Ordnance Fuze Laboratory was a pioneer, and we have a special place in our hearts for pioneers,” Horlick said. 

Bolden went on to a career in the FAA. He died in 2007. 

James O. Bryson 

James O. Bryson poses for a head shot at NIST
James O. Bryson
Credit: NIST Archives

James O. Bryson was born in 1926 in Fort Benning, Georgia. 

He earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the Hampton Institute (now known as Hampton University) in 1950 and a master’s degree in structural engineering from Catholic University in 1959, according to NIST records. 

Bryson joined NBS in 1954 as a structural engineer. He investigated structural materials and components while attending graduate school. In 1966, he developed and led a study of occupancy loads on buildings. Building industry officials in the U.S. and around the world praised the study.

In 1971, Bryson led a program that studied the design and analysis of manufactured buildings. Bryson received the “State-of-the-Art of Civil Engineering Award” from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1973.

During his career at NBS, Bryson wrote research papers on the use of waterproofing materials on concrete masonry walls, at the request of the U.S. Air Force. 

He also tested precast concrete shower floors. Bryson wrote in a 1959 paper that the Federal Housing Administration requested the test to help determine the structural characteristics needed in a concrete shower floor to allow it to be used without a metal shower pan. 

Bryson retired in 1982 and died in 2006. 

James E. Fearn 

James E. Fearn poses in his military uniform in the 1940s
James E. Fearn
Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Fearn-Banks

James E. Fearn was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1917, according to his daughter Kathleen Fearn-Banks. 

During World War II, he studied aeronautical science and graduated from the Tuskegee Airmen training program. He could not fly planes due to his vision. 

After the war, he received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Howard University in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1950. He earned his Ph.D. from Catholic University in 1954. 

Fearn was hired to work at the National Bureau of Standards in 1957 as a specialist in physical organic chemistry. His work for the Polymer Structure Section focused on the development of special organic compounds. His research areas also included chemotherapy, rodent repellants and fluoropolymers, a polymer that has high resistance to solvents, acids, and bases. His work helped lead to the synthesis of more than 70 new chemicals and plastics. 

Fearn published papers on chemistry and the effects of herbicides on masonry and was a lifelong member of the American Chemical Society, presenting regularly at its meetings. He also worked on plastic used to restore statues in Washington, D.C. 

“My father’s work was instrumental in the development of a plastic used in windows on the space shuttle and at another time in the development of Teflon,” Fearn-Banks said. 

Fearn worked for the bureau for more than 20 years. He is believed to have retired around 1980. 

He died in 1999. 

James E. Fearn stands in a white lab coat next to scientific equipment in a historical photo.
James E. Fearn, a chemistry expert, worked at NBS for more than 20 years. While this photo is undated, Fearn's daughter believes it was taken in the 1950s.
Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Fearn-Banks

William Henry Maurice Thomas Jr. 

Moe Thomas Jr. poses in his airman uniform with a pipe in his mouth in a historical photo.
William Henry Maurice "Moe" Thomas Jr.
Credit: Courtesy of Helen Goode

Tuskegee Airman 2nd Lt. William Henry Maurice “Moe” Thomas Jr. was born in 1921 in Portsmouth, Virginia. 

After graduating from high school, Thomas volunteered for the military when he learned that Black Americans were being trained by the U.S. Army Air Corps. He became a second lieutenant in 1944 and went onto be the lead navigator for the 617th Bomb Squadron. 

After leaving active duty, he went to work at NBS as a missile ordnance technician, where he researched highly sensitive thermometers, known as rhenium bolometers. That research was later used in weather satellites at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

According to NIST records, Thomas worked for NBS from 1952-53 doing ordnance work, in the same office as Bolden that was later transferred to the U.S. Army. 

Thomas was deeply moved by the racial prejudice he experienced during his time in the military. He was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, including with the NAACP and churches in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Thomas also launched a school for disadvantaged youth in Maryland. 

“He was a warm and loving dad and a willing mentor to the community at large,” said his daughter, Helen Goode. 

Thomas died in 2007, just one week after the remaining Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to the nation. 

Moe Thomas Jr. poses outside the U.S. Capitol with a Congressional Gold Medal and a framed photo of himself as a young airman.
William Henry Maurice "Moe" Thomas Jr. was among the 300 Tuskegee Airmen who received the Congressional Gold Medal on March 29, 2007. He died a week after the ceremony.
Credit: Courtesy of Helen Goode

About the author

Megan King

Megan King is a writer-editor at NIST and edits the Taking Measure blog. After graduating from John Carroll University, she began her career as a newspaper journalist, covering county fairs and school...

Comments

Very informative post

Thanks

Really fascinating post. Thank you!

Thank you, what a beautiful post. I am not from the US, but I feel represented.

Thank you for sharing these stories so important to NIST's history.

Thank you for much needed info on black accomplishments & always in awe at how well so much black history has maliciously been overlooked.

I feel honored to have worked alongside these American heroes at the Bureau. I wish I had known them and their stories at the time.

Thank you so much for a wonderful post. I appreciate the links that provide an even wider glimpse into their fascinating and well-lived lives. I was very surprised to find out that William Henry Maurice "Moe" Thomas Jr. was born in my hometown, Portsmouth, VA. It's amazing how much history was left out of my history books in school.

Thank you for sharing the back stories of these brave, intelligent men and their contributions this nation and NIST.

Your portraits are so interesting and help fill in the landscape of incredible people and talent that have made up NBS (now NIST). I had the privilege of working there during the 60’s and 70’s.

The stories of these men were a very interesting read. I found it to be a great way to add additional background information when teaching the contributions made by black Americans during WWII and after the war in my American History Class.

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