When Wesley Harris, Ph.D., got accepted into the University of Virginia (UVA), he hoped to follow in his high school teacher’s footsteps by becoming a physicist.
But the year was 1960, and Black people were not allowed to major in physics at the university. So, Harris enrolled in the school of engineering, the only school that was open to Blacks, where he would go on to study aerospace. In 1964, Harris was the first person to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering and graduate with honors. He went on to Princeton University, where he earned master and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace and mechanical sciences.
He remembers encountering racism on a regular basis at both universities. He credits his family and his high school physics teacher, Eloise Bose Washington, for giving him the mental toughness he needed to succeed.
Washington encouraged Harris as a high school student to exhibit his project at the white Virginia State science fair. He did, but the project placed third, which upset them both. The same project placed first in the Black science fair. Washington would later push Harris to attend UVA, because not only he would thrive there academically, but he could also prove to white people that Blacks could demonstrate absolute scholarship.
“Going to UVA and Princeton was very easy, when you think of the lynching and the abuse that Blacks suffered in the South when I was growing up,” says Harris, 80, who grew up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, which was the capital of the confederacy. “I had it very easy, really, compared to my brothers and my sisters in the South. So, there was no fear.”
Civil rights were never far from his mind. At UVA, Harris was only one of seven Black undergraduates and was the first African American to be elected to the prestigious Jefferson Society at UVA. He went on to lead a small group of students in fighting for racial equality at the segregated university. The group formed an advocacy organization called the “Thomas Jefferson Virginia Council on Human Relations,” which recruited Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to address the school and tour The Grounds (campus) in 1963, months before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Harris remembers sharing meals with King at The Virginian, the only private dining venue that served African Americans, and introducing the civil rights legend to different audiences. Harris says King’s presentation was very scholarly and profound.
“His presentation in Old Cabell Hall was not that of a Black Southern Baptist preacher, it wasn’t that at all,” Harris recalls. "It was not a sermon. It was a very eloquent speech with a philosophical base to support human dignity. He quoted, without notes, some of the great western philosophers. We should all be mindful that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earned a degree in theology — not divinity but theology — at Boston University.”
Harris went on to serve as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) associate administrator for aeronautics from 1993 to 1995, which put him in charge of all its aeronautics programs, facilities, and personnel. Harris directed the National Aerospace Plane Program that develops aircrafts that can reach orbital altitudes by themselves. He led several projects, including technological research for a new supersonic transport airplane. This position allowed him to hold annual exchanges with various international partners and scientists in engineering and aeronautics.
“It was a good time,” Harris says. “A wonderful time to be immersed in aeronautics.”
Harris, elected as a AAAS Fellow in 2019, is now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In that role, he teaches a graduate course in aerothermodynamics, hypersonics and leads an undergraduate, first year seminar focused on international development.
When Harris began his career at MIT in the 1970s as a faculty member, he made sure that undergraduate students of color at MIT did not get left behind and established the Office of Minority Education, becoming its founding director. The office created programs designed to help boost academic performance by enlisting graduate students to tutor them in various subjects. Other components included securing financial and other forms of academic support for students of color, helping them land internships, and convincing the mostly white faculty that they, too, should play a positive role in these students lives.
More importantly, he convinced the students that they belonged at MIT, no matter what their naysayers at the elite school told them.
“They were at MIT based on their intellect, based on their success,” Harris says, adding that the Office of Minority Education still exists today.
When he reflects on his career, he wants everyone to know that he stands on the shoulders of many besides Washington—George B. Matthews and John Edward Scott, two UVA professors who convinced him to go to Princeton, his Princeton thesis advisor George Bienkowski, and the brilliant students he says he is blessed to work with at MIT.
“I would hope that the Black community knows that I love my work,” Harris notes. “I would hope that the Black and white communities respect our work as absolute scholarship."