The Associated Press reported in a statement released in February this year:
Kenneth C. Kelly, a black electronics engineer whose antenna design contributed to the race to the moon, enabled satellite television and radio, and helped NASA communicate with Mars rovers and search for aliens, has died. The 92-year-old also worked to break down racial barriers in the Navy, California housing, and newspaper comic pages.
Kelly had developed Parkinson’s disease before his death on Feb.27, said his son Ron Kelly.
Kelly received more than a dozen patents for innovations in radar and antenna technology, work published in peer-reviewed journals from 1955 to 1999. His early work at Hughes Aircraft helped develop the guided missile systems and the ground satellites that tracked the Apollo space missions, he said in an oral lore recorded by his family.
His two-way antenna designs at Rantec Microwave Systems enabled DirecTV and Sirius XM connections for consumers and are included in the giant Mojave desert radio telescopes searching for life signs in space, his son and JPL colleagues said.
After many years working on space missions through NASA subcontractors, Kelly worked directly for JPL from 1999 until his retirement in 2002, helping develop robotic antennas for the Spirit and Mars rovers, according to Joseph Vacchione, who heads JPL’s antenna testing division Opportunity.
Kelly appeared in an Associated Press article in 1962 after he and his family moved to Gardena, a middle-class suburb that excluded blacks. To overcome a racist bond and repeated rejections from real estate agents, he had to ask a white colleague at Hughes to make the purchase for him.
“We have pretty much the same hopes, fears, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses that characterize all of human existence,” wrote Kelly in a letter to his white neighbors, urging them to put aside “stereotyped ideas,” according to the AP -Story.
Kelly and his wife, Loretta, later relocated near California State University-Northridge to be closer to his job and to take their children to better schools. According to oral tradition from 2017, the agent would not sell him the property, so he had to repeat the humiliating experience of white friends buying it for him before he signed the mortgage.
Kelly became president of the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council, tested lists to prove discrimination, lobbyed authorities, and went to court to prevent whites-only advertising. To do more internally, he became a leading real estate agent and helped many black families move to new suburbs in the 1970s.
Kelly played another role in promoting racial harmony following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A white Kelly ally on the Fair Housing Council, schoolteacher Harriet Glickman, had corresponded with and urged cartoonist Charles Schulz , add a black character to your comic. Back then, blacks were practically invisible in the mass media.
Letters published by the Charles M. Schulz Museum indicate that the cartoonist was reluctant, fearing that the move would appear patronizing to blacks after King’s death. Glickman recruited Kelly to convince Schulz otherwise.
Kelly urged the cartoonist to treat the black character as “redundant” – just another member of the Peanuts gang. Franklin soon showed up on a beach and helped Charlie Brown build a sandcastle.
Born in New York City in 1928 and raised by a single mother who worked as a housemaid, Kelly began living at the Harlem YMCA at age 13, where he was cared for by older black men including photographer Gordon Parks. He tested Brooklyn Tech High School and then enlisted in the Navy for training as an electronics technician. He said he could only help white officers, wrote to the chief recruiter, and was allowed to take the engineering exam when President Harry Truman tried to desegregate the military.
“I think I’m a crazy optimist,” Kelly said in his oral story. “I’m definitely the half-full glass person. I meet a lot of people who are so pessimistic. I always thought I could. “
Kelly’s Navy training helped him excel at Brooklyn Polytechnic College and get a job with Hughes Aircraft in 1953. He later learned that his white colleagues had been interviewed to see if they would work with a black man; the few who said they were going to quit were told to do so.
Kelly and Loretta were members of the Ethical Cultural Society for decades. He also founded a Society of Black Scientists and Engineers that organized science fairs and information programs for minority students in Los Angeles, which was booming in the post-war era with blacks fleeing the south.
“I think the more contact between those who have succeeded in what they do and those who are several steps down the line, the better,” he said.
Kelly felt the sting of racism time and again in life, but was determined to overcome it.
“We have a terrible history of defeat, terrible conditions, death, rape, just a damn good history of black people in this country, but I don’t think it’s valuable to know unless it encourages you to to do more to somehow defeat it and I think we can, ”said Kelly in his oral lore.
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