African American Groundbreakers at the Smithsonian: Challenges and Achievements

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Louis R. Purnell

A twentieth century Renaissance man, Louis R. Purnell lived a remarkable life. His career began in the skies above Italy and Germany, where he flew 88 combat missions as an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, while working at the National Museum of Natural History, he traveled the world’s oceans collecting marine specimens, taught himself geology and paleontology, and wrote an important catalog of nautiloids and cephalopods that is still in use today. In 1968, just one year before the moon landing, he started working at the National Air and Space Museum, becoming one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of spacecraft and spacesuits. Though racial discrimination had often blocked his career path and kept him from receiving full recognition for his accomplishments, he persevered, powered by an insatiable curiosity. By 1980, he became the Smithsonian’s first African American curator, blazing a trail for those who would follow. 

The Education of Louis R. Purnell

Louis R. Purnell, Jr., Curator of Astronautics, in Front of Airplane at NASM
Louis R. Purnell was born in 1920 in the small town of Snow Hill on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to two schoolteachers, Louis J. and Matilda M. Purnell. Two years later, like many others during and after World War I, the Purnells migrated from the countryside in order to pursue a new life in the city. In 1922, they settled into Wilmington, Delaware, and started a new life.1 Unable to secure a teaching job, Purnell Sr. started working for the Pullman Company. For seventeen years, he manufactured Pullman rail cars working as an “interior decorator, painter, striper, refinisher, refurbisher in fabrics and woodwork[er].” 2 With a steady paycheck, Matilda Purnell was able to remain in education and worked as a substitute in the Wilmington public schools. 

In 1929, when Louis Purnell Jr. was nine years old, the stock market crashed, inaugurating more than a decade of economic depression that hit African Americans especially hard. By 1940, nine in ten black families were living below the poverty line with those lucky enough to have jobs earning just thirty nine cents for every dollar made by white workers.3 Fortunately, Purnell Sr. was able to keep his job at the Pullman factory, though his wages were not enough to support his growing family.  This made the Depression especially hard on Matilda Purnell. As a schoolteacher, she had been able to escape the domestic labor that was the fate of the vast majority African American women workers. However, surviving the Depression meant that she had to take up the washtub.  As Purnell remembered years later, “my mother was very embarrassed to have done this, but the white neighbors ... wanted her to take in the washing. They would come by our place and see the beautiful white linen on the line and they would ask her if she would launder their items.” Needing the income, “she would launder them,” but she drew the line at ironing, refusing to do so “out of pride.” 4

The Purnell family stayed in Wilmington until 1933 when they moved across Delaware Bay to Cape May, New Jersey, following the death of Louis Purnell’s uncle, who owned ten acres of land on the edge of town. Upon arriving, they assumed the control of the property, giving Matilda Purnell the resources to free herself from paid domestic labor to concentrate on keeping her own family together. With enough land to raise chickens and pigs, a fruit orchard and plenty of space to grow vegetables, they were able to weather the Depression. To bring cash into the household, Louis J. Purnell Sr. continued working at the Pullman factory in Wilmington for the next six years, returning home only every two weeks to see his family.5  

The education available to him in Cape May was far superior than he could have obtained in the segregated schools he attended in Wilmington. Not only was Cape May High School superior, it was also integrated.6 Nevetheless, Purnell was the only black student in his entire grade. As Purnell recalled, it was “something like a ratio of eight blacks to six hundred whites.” 7   

Purnell graduated high school with honors – an accolade only given the top six students in each graduating class. Though justifiably proud of his accomplishments, a white teacher told him not to be “too elated. You just made it by the skin of your teeth.” Purnell’s mother, who had friends in the school, later discovered her son was actually third in his class, not sixth. Reflecting on this experience years later, Purnell decided that the experience had taught him:

“You had to be twice as good to appear equal to [white people], and from that day forward, in all of my endeavors, I've always remembered that.” 8

Learning to navigate these hazardous waters as a young man helped give Purnell the skills he would later need to thrive as the only black employee in a workplace environment often resentful of his achievements and hostile to his success.

Cape May Air Station

It was in Cape May that he first fell in love with flying. On his way home from school, Purnell would cycle by the Coast Guard station, prop his bicycle against the chain-link fences and watch “…planes practice touch-and-go landings. I'd see this little, looked like a peanut-size, head in the cockpit in this great big plane, and I marveled at the fact thathe was controlling this roaring plane ... what got me interested in aviation was the fact that I'd always look up and say, ‘There's a man in that plane. It could be me. I want to be that man who's flying high above everything else’.” 9   

He even talked his way onto the airfield by offering to sweep out the hangar and clean the mechanics’ tools and observing everything he could. There, he would place his hands on the fuselage and marvel to himself, “Gee whiz, this thing has been way up there, miles up in the air and it's going up again.”10 That sense of wonder would revisit him throughout his life and drive him to build a life where he could fulfill his curiosity. 


Into the Air

In 1939, Louis Purnell left Cape May to attend Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. However, world events would soon divert Purnell from his chosen career track. On 1 September 1939, just a few weeks into Purnell’s freshman year at Lincoln University, Nazi Germany invaded Poland sparking the Second World War. A year previously, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for the establishment of a nationwide Civilian Pilot Training program in order to ensure an ample supply of pilots in case of war with Germany and Japan.11 Following a lengthy campaign by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to open these training programs to African American applicants, the federal government established segregated facilities at several black college campuses, among them Lincoln University.12 Purnell signed up immediately and soon became one of the 124 licensed black pilots in the United States.13 

Pilot license in hand, Purnell then wrote to the NAACP in May of 1941 requesting advice about how to join the US Army Air Corps. In his response, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White included an application form and informed him about the segregated training school that was about to open in Tuskegee, Alabama. By December, Purnell was enrolled in the seventh class of African American Army Air Force aviation cadets stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field.14

Though racial discrimination had certainly shaped Louis Purnell’s life, he hadn’t experienced the full force of Jim Crow until he traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama, for the first time. In his “first venture down South,” he was forced to sit “in the back of the bus.” As white passengers filled the front seats, Purnell and the other black passengers were forced to move further back, squeezing together in the hottest part of the bus above the engine.15 And that was just the trip to Tuskegee. Once he arrived, there were considerable tensions between the black men stationed at the camp and the white residents of Tuskegee.  By April of 1942, there had been at least three clashes between the black military police stationed on the base and white civilian authorities. The worst of these conflicts pitted the MPs against a mob of heavily armed white civilians and threatened to escalate into a full scale race riot.16 Besides the ever-present threat of violence, Purnell recalls the indignity of facing segregation while in service to his country.  It was “very difficult to eat in restaurants ... because they just didn’t serve ‘niggers’.” 17 If you wanted to see a movie, “you sat up in the balcony, and prior to that, you had to wait ... for the film to be shown in the white movie house” first.18 As a result, Purnell just avoided leaving the base altogether.19 In a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, Purnell later recalled,

"We fought two wars, one with the enemy and the other back home in the U.S.A." 20

Louis R. Purnell in Airman Uniform
On 3 July 1942, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron, popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen.21 Like many black GIs, he was glad to leave the uncertain dangers of the Jim Crow South for the more certain dangers of the front. Over the next three years, Purnell saw more combat duty than most the Tuskegee Airmen. After flying forty four missions with the 99th Fighter Squadron, he was accidentally struck by a jeep while asleep in his tent.22 Sent home to recover, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and transferred to the 332nd to serve as the Assistant Group Operations Officer and to train the next generation of black fighter pilots.23 However, desk duty did not suit him and he requested a return to combat. 

Throughout the war, the black press breathlessly covered Purnell and the rest of the Tuskegee pilots. In June of 1943, Ollie Stewart of the Baltimore Afro-American declared that “our flyers are making history daily. They are in combat against the enemy and have demonstrated their ability to give more than they have to take by superior tactics.” 24 One month later, as Allied forces began the land invasion of Italy, the Baltimore Afro-American reported that “colored fighter pilots were in the vanguard of devastation by air which paved the way for Allied landings in Sicily ... they helped provide the all-important air umbrella for the ground forces dashing ashore.” 25 By V-E Day, Lt. Purnell had flown 88 missions over North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Germany.  For his bravery in combat and devotion to duty, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters.26 

An Insatiable Curiosity

At the end of war, Purnell turned down the offer of a military career and returned to Lincoln University to finish his college degree.27 Graduating in 1947, he moved to Washington DC to pursue graduate work in speech therapy at Howard University. However, under pressure from his first wife to bring in some income, he left after a year in pursuit of steady employment with the government. He started out at the post office, where he made “good progress” and quickly moved “up the ladder.” However, he found the work “hum-drum,” and within a year he moved on.28Purnell could have followed the path trod by many other GIs who were busy establishing themselves in their post-war jobs. However, over the next decade he began and left several careers: teaching at a school for learning disabled students, working as a supervisor at the Library of Congress Book Exchange, and identifying the remains of unknown GIs who died in World War II for the Office of the Quartermaster General. Though secure, none of these jobs would be able to satisfy his intellectual passions.   

Finally, in 1961, Purnell landed a temporary six-month job working as a museum specialist in the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. He made the most of this opportunity and at the end of the six months, he was offered a permanent position.

For the first time in almost a decade, Louis Purnell had found the intellectually challenging work that had been craving. Purnell recalled his first days working at the museum:

“In geology or paleontology, you are shown what is in the earth, and it's amazing when you go back millions of years and you can find a fossil, hold it in your hand, and say, ‘This thing was living millions of years ago, and you're holding the remains of it in your hand to study what inhabited the earth way back there’.” 29

For the next several years, he identified, cataloged, and tagged specimens, traveling the world on several oceanographic expeditions aboard the Oceanographic Research Ship USNS Chain.  Departing from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Purnell’s first trip took him to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where he and his team spent a month collecting marine specimens and taking “samples of sediment from the ocean bottom.” Another trip on the Chain took Purnell on a six week trip to gather “sediment and sea creatures” from the “coast of South America” to New Zealand, skirting the South Pole along the way.30

In between expeditions, Purnell worked hard to familiarize himself with the Smithsonian’s collection of nautiloids. Noting that several were listed as missing, he conducted a diligent search through the museum’s attic and located the missing specimens where his predecessors had lost track of them. Unfortunately, Purnell’s ambition incurred the antipathy of some of his white coworkers. When he declared that he would write a new catalog based on his research, his supervisors told him he didn’t “know what he was doing” since he did not have a degree in geology.  Undeterred, Purnell enrolled in classes at George Washington University to learn how to identify the nautiloids and cephalopods that were in the Smithsonian’s collections.  On evenings and weekends he finished his catalog. Published in 1968, it is still in use today.31   

As Purnell was putting the finishing touches on his research, the collections manager for division “tried to do everything he could to throw a wrench into the works,” resentful that Purnell could publish an important catalog without formal education in geology. This professional jealousy was perhaps why Purnell was passed over promotion even though he had been assured that publishing a catalog would allow him “to write his own ticket.” To make matters worse, once it was ready to go to print, his supervisors claimed credit for Purnell’s achievement. While they could not outright steal his work, they convinced the Smithsonian Institution Press to write in the foreword that this work was done under the supervision of the very same people who told him he could not do this project. Unwilling to accept any limits to his intellectual ambition, Purnell shifted careers yet again.32 

The National Air and Space Museum

As a pilot, Purnell had watched the growth and development of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum with great interest since its establishment in 1946, and in 1968 he decided to apply for a position at NASM. Despite his obvious experience, he was discouraged from applying to the museum’s Department of Aeronautics after a friend who worked there let him know that “they did not want any Negroes in that section.” So, he applied instead to the Astronautics Department. Even this was a challenge since Paul E. Garber, head curator of the Air and Space Museum had “made it known ... in a staff meeting” that he didn't want any “uppity blacks” in his museum. Despite these obstacles, upon meeting him, Astronautics chair Frederick C. Durant hired him on the spot.33

Not only did Purnell’s move to Air and Space come with a significant (and long awaited) promotion, he started in the Astronautics Department at perhaps the most exciting moment in the history of the museum: in the midst of the space race and one year before the 1969 moon landing.34 A year before Purnell joined the staff at Air and Space, the Smithsonian signed an agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) stipulating that everything manufactured for the space program would be offered to the Smithsonian once it had “served its purpose.” Over the course of the agreement, the Smithsonian collected more than 100 tons of astronautic specimens, and it was Purnell’s job to

“Go out and look at these things and inspect them, judge them as to whether they were worthy of being collected, whether we could exhibit them, and for their public appeal.”

By June of 1969, the Smithsonian had acquired “eighteen Mercury spacecraft, the ten Gemini and the two Apollo spacecraft” along with the spacesuits used in these missions. In 1969, of the roughly 3,500 specimens that the museum received, 85 percent were “astro specimens.”  In addition, Purnell also solicited donations from the companies that supplied NASA, soliciting an agreement from companies like McDonnell Douglas that the Smithsonian “would get all spacecraft that ever flew into orbit and some of the test spacecraft” as well as “all spacesuits, the equipment,” and “everything the astronauts wore in space.” The sheer amount that Purnell collected not only filled the new museum on the Mall when it opened in 1976, it also powered an extensive loan program that filled dozens of smaller space museums that opened across the nation in the early years of the space program.35

Purnell’s experiences flying several different types of aircraft in combat gave him the practical knowledge that allowed him to educate the general public on the mechanics of spaceflight. He was so good at explaining these details that Durant requested that he teach public classes on rocketry, space flight and aeronautics.  It also gave him the knowledge base necessary to learn and understand the new research about getting to, navigating and surviving in space. It so deeply satisfied his curiosity that “a twenty-mule team” could not have pulled him away from his work.36 

By 1972, Purnell finally won a promotion to the positon of Assistant Curator with a specialization in spacesuits and lunar exploration vehicles.37 By the mid-1970s, he had become one of the world’s leading experts on the history of spacesuit technology and had travelled the world collecting space artifacts and educating the public on the history of spaceflight. Nevertheless, Purnell was passed up for promotion to Curator until 1980. Though willing to hire him, Astronautics chair Frederick Durant could do little to advance Purnell’s career since he lacked a PhD. Purnell had to work his way up “the hard way.” 38   

During these years, Purnell did what he could to raise the visibility of African Americans in the museum. Since arriving at Air and Space, he had attempted to get the aeronautics division interested in mounting a full-scale exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen to no avail. Then, in 1977, when the new Air and Space museum building opened, Robert Tripp, an African American high school teacher from Virginia visited and quickly noted that there were no African Americans represented in the museum. In fact, even the mannequins in the aircraft on display were white.  After a five year campaign to expand the representation of African Americans at Air and Space, Tripp was finally able to get in contact with Louis Purnell. As the first African American curator, Purnell accompanied the Virginia schoolteacher to visit Ronald V. Dellums, Democratic member of the House from California. When Dellums subsequently toured the museum with director Noel Hinners in tow, he informed the director that “You will get up an exhibit to show the contribution of blacks to aviation. You will keep me informed of its progress, and you will invite me to the opening.” Black Wings, exploring the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, opened in 1983 and would become one of Air and Space’s permanent exhibits.39

First cadets

To thrive as the first black curator at the Smithsonian, Purnell always had to be “twice as good to appear equal to” his white co-workers. Reviewing his career after his retirement in 1985, he concluded that he was able to pursue his intellectual passions because he learned to “roll with the punches” and “overlook – not forgive, but overlook – [the] prejudice” he faced.

That “barricade” of prejudice “was always there,” and would likely always be there.  The only way to defeat it, he reasoned, was to “jump one hurdle and then the next one.” 40 As a trailblazer, Louis Purnell managed to knock at least a few of those hurdles down for the next generation of black curators.



1 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 1, 15 Dec 1993, 1-2. Return to text

Ibid., 12-13. Return to text

3 David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 765. Return to text

4 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 1, 15 Dec 1993, 14. Return to text

Ibid., 12, 13, 15. Return to text

Ibid., 3. Return to text

Ibid., 9. Return to text

Ibid., 5. Return to text

Ibid., 29-30. Return to text

10 Ibid., 37. Return to text

11 J. Todd Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 23-24. Return to text

12 Louis R. Purnell, “Flight of the Bumblebee” Air & Space, 1 November 1989; SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 1, 15 Dec 1993, 32. Return to text

13 Moye, 25. Return to text

14 Walter White to Louis Purnell, 16 May 1941. Cited in Charles E. Francis and Adolph Caso, The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men who Changed a Nation, (Wellesley, MA: Branden Books, 1997), 50; Purnell, “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Return to text

15 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 1, 15 Dec 1993, 40. Return to text

16 Moye, 87-88. Return to text

17 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 1, 15 Dec 1993, 35. Return to text

18 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 2, 22 Dec 1993, 48. Return to text

19 Ibid., 50. Return to text

20 “Fighting to Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen,” Los Angeles Sentinel, 1 Dec 1994, p. A-1. Return to text

21 “Air Corps Officer,” Baltimore Afro-American, 18 July 1942, 21; Charles E. Francis and Adolph Caso, The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men who Changed a Nation, (Wellesley, MA: Branden Books, 1997), 279. Return to text

22 “Back in Philly, 99th Pilot Recalls Flights over Italy,” Baltimore Afro-American, 13 Nov 1943, 10. Return to text

23 “9 Members of 99th Squadron Promoted,” Baltimore Afro-American, 4 Sept 1943, 1; “5 Overseas Flyers to Go to Selfridge as Instructors,” Baltimore Afro-American, 6 Nov 1943, 1. Return to text

24 Ollie Stewart, “27 Tuskegee Flyers in Squadron Dropping Bombs on Italian Area,” Baltimore Afro-American, 26 June 1943, 1. Return to text

25 Ollie Stewart, “Tuskegee Pilots Help Pave Way for the Allies’ New Advance,” Baltimore Afro-American, 24 July 1943, 1. Return to text

26 Francis and Caso, 279. Return to text

27 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 2, 22 Dec 1993, 83. Return to text

28 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 3, 28 Dec 1993, 94. Return to text

29 Ibid., 102. SIA RU009578. Return to text

30 Ibid., 102-103. Return to text

31 Ibid., 102, 108; Louis R. Purnell, Catalog of the type specimens of invertebrate fossils (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968). Return to text

32 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 3, 28 Dec 1993, 103, 105-106, 110-111, 125. Return to text

33 Ibid., 103; SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 4, 5 Jan 1994, 132. Return to text

34 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 4, 5 Jan 1994, 134. Return to text

35 Ibid., 137-138, 146, 148, 162. Return to text

36 Ibid., 136-137, 142. Return to text

37 Courtney Bellizzi, “Louis Purnell, Airman and Curator,” The Bigger Picture: Exploring Archives and Smithsonian History, SIA, 22 Feb 2011.; SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 5, 14 Jan 1994, 213-214.  Return to text

38 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 6, 4 Feb 1994, 260. Return to text

39 Ibid., 216-217, 251-253; Diane Tedeschi, “A Quarter Century of ‘Black Wings’,” Air & Space Magazine, March 2007. Return to text

40 SIA, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Interviews, Louis R. Purnell, Interview 7, 28 Feb 1994, 266, 269. Return to text