Edward Joseph (Ed) Dwight Jr. is an American sculptor, author, and former test pilot. He is the first African American to have entered the Air Force training program from which NASA selected astronauts.
Dwight was born on September 9, 1933 in the racially segregated Kansas City, Kansas area, to Edward Dwight Sr. and Georgia Baker Dwight. From 1924–1937, his father played second base and centerfield for the Kansas City Monarchs.
At age 4, Dwight built a toy airplane out of orange crates in his backyard. As a child, he was an avid reader and talented artist who was mechanically gifted and enjoyed working with his hands. He attended grade school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Kansas City. While delivering newspapers, he saw the KCMO native Black man and Air Force pilot, Dayton Ragland on the front page of The Call. Having grown up in racist segregation, he instantly “wigged out”, becoming inspired to follow this career path while thinking “This is insane. I didn’t even know they let black pilots get anywhere near airplanes. … Where did he get trained? How did he get in the military? How did all this stuff happen right before my nose?”. In 1951, he became the first African-American male to graduate from Bishop Ward High School, a private Roman Catholic high school in Kansas City, Kansas. He was a member of the National Honor Society and earned a scholarship to attend the Kansas City Art Institute. Dwight enrolled in Kansas City Junior College (later renamed Metropolitan Community College) and graduated with an Associate of Arts degree in Engineering in 1953.
Dwight enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1953. He completed his airman and cadet pre-flight training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. He then traveled to Malden Air Base in Malden, Missouri, to finish his primary flight training. He earned a commission as an Air Force second lieutenant in 1955 before being assigned to Williams Air Force Base, southeast of Phoenix, Arizona.
While training to become a test pilot, Dwight attended night classes at Arizona State University. In 1957, he graduated cum laude with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering. Dwight later completed Air Force courses in experimental test piloting and aerospace research at Edwards Air Force Base in 1961 and 1962, respectively. He earned the rank of captain while serving in the Air Force.
In 1961, the Kennedy administration selected Dwight as the first African American astronaut trainee, at the suggestion of the National Urban League’s Whitney Young. His selection garnered international media attention, and Dwight appeared on the covers of news magazines such as Ebony, Jet, and Sepia.
Dwight proceeded to Phase II of Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) but was not selected by NASA to be an astronaut. He resigned from the Air Force in 1966, claiming, according to The Guardian, that “racial politics had forced him out of NASA and into the regular officer corps”.
After resigning from the Air Force, Dwight worked as an engineer, in real estate, and for IBM. He opened a barbecue restaurant in Denver. Dwight was also a successful construction entrepreneur and occasionally “built things with scrap metal”. Dwight’s artistic interest in sculpting and interest in learning about black historical icons grew after Colorado’s first black lieutenant governor, George L. Brown, commissioned him to create a statue for the state capitol building in 1974. Upon completion, Dwight moved to Denver and earned an M.F.A. degree in sculpture from the University of Denver in 1977. He learned how to operate the University of Denver’s metal casting foundry in the mid 1970s.
Each of Dwight’s pieces involves Blacks and civil rights activists, with a focus on the themes of slavery, emancipation, and post-reconstruction. Most of the pieces depict only Black people, but the Underground Railroad Sculpture in Battle Creek also honors Erastus and Sarah Hussey, who were conductors on the Underground Railroad. Dwight’s first major work was a commission in 1974 to create a sculpture of Colorado Lieutenant Governor George L. Brown. Soon after, he was commissioned by the Colorado Centennial Commission to create a series of bronze sculptures entitled “Black Frontier in the American West”.
Soon after his completion of his “Black Frontier in the American West” exhibit, Dwight created a series of more than 70 bronze sculptures at the St. Louis Arch Museum at the request of the National Park Service. The series, “Jazz: An American Art Form”, depicts the evolution of jazz and features jazz performers such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Parker.
Dwight owns and operates Ed Dwight Studios, based in Denver, Colorado. He is recognized for innovative use of negative space in sculpting. Its 25,000 sq. ft. facility houses a studio, gallery, foundry, and a large collection of research material. The gallery and studio is open to the public.
As of late 2019, Dwight has created 129 memorial sculptures and over 18,000 gallery pieces, which include paintings and sculptures.