Why I Do What I Do

Recently I was in Chicago where the Mercury 13 women received the Leaders in Space Science Award from the city’s Adler Planetarium. It was a wonderful event on a singularly beautiful day in Chicago: blue skies, a sparkling Lake Michigan, and an elbow-to-elbow crowd at the Adler. Tickets for the event sold out almost immediately. Nearly 400 people gathered to learn more about the secret testing of these 13 pilots who hoped to become the first women in space.

I was honored to give the keynote lecture. During the dinner afterwards, people kept coming up to me with the same three questions about my book, The Mercury 13: “Why haven’t I heard about this story?” “Were women actually tested to be astronauts along with John Glenn, Alan Shepard and all the others?” “Why was their story hidden for some many years?”

The four Mercury 13 women who were able to attend the Adler celebration—Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen and Rhea Woltman—were buttonholed with similar questions. Everyone hearing about the Mercury 13 for the first time wants to know if their memories are just flat-out bad or if there’s a deeper reason they haven’t heard of the story.

Later during my trip to Chicago, I attended a Negro Leagues Baseball conference. I’m working on a new book about women and baseball and have been interested in the three women who played baseball in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s. During the conference, a group of us went out to Chicago Burr Oak Cemetery in nearby Alsip, Illinois where 17 Negro Leaguers are buried, many in unmarked graves. Thanks to the efforts of Peoria anesthesiologist Jeremy Krock and others, enough money now has been raised to place markers on all the players’ graves.

The ceremony to honor the players was unforgettable. A group of about 50 of us—including 95 year-old Charles Johnson, who played for the Memphis Red Sox and Cleveland Buckeyes--gathered under a tent to sing, pray and hear remarks from Negro League historians and the soft-spoken Dr. Krock.

Then a young man on a keyboard set up behind us began to play—not “Amazing Grace”—but “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” A young woman scooped popcorn out of a giant red and gold popper. Others passed around peanuts and cold soda. A young boy grabbed at one of the many multi-colored balloons in the tent and then scrambled as it slipped out of his fingers and floated over headstones.

As we made our way to the nearby grave of Theodore Trent, the whole scene was wonderfully incongruous and appropriate all at the same time. While some snapped photographs and munched on popcorn, others--including a clutch of cemetery workers-- stopped their work to solemnly read the freshly-laid marker. “Theodore Trent. Highpockets. Big Florida. Ted. 1905-1944. A pitching great in the Negro Baseball League.”

A few reporters gathered around historian Larry Lester and asked him questions. “Why don’t people know about the Negro Leagues?” “How long were African American players barred from playing in the majors?” “Why doesn’t history know about “Highpockets” Trent?

These are important questions to ask. Like questions about the Mercury 13, they point to our historical amnesia about the achievements of many women, African Americans and other minorities who have changed our country for the better but whose contributions have either been forgotten or never recognized in the first place.

Many people don’t like to think about our history as marred with prejudice. Others don’t want to relive its bigotry. But without understanding that complicated past, we run the risk of keeping discrimination alive.

“Respect, redemption, recognition”—these are the reasons we honor Negro League ballplayers Dr. Krock said, echoing Larry Lester’s words. They are also why we work to remember the lives of all Americans who have been left out of the pages of history.

As I stood at that Chicago cemetery on a June afternoon or joined in celebrating 13 women pilots at the Adler Planetarium, I felt lucky and humbled. Chronicling these remarkable lives is a both a privilege and a responsibility. And itís why I do what I do.