Challenger Astronaut Ronald E. McNair's Legacy Honored

25 years after explosion, African-American physicist is honored in hometown.

January 29, 2011, 3:58 PM

Jan. 29, 2011— -- Twenty five years ago the nation watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the air, creating a massive fireball just 73 seconds after launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The tragedy shook the entire world and prompted NASA to evaluate its shuttle program and review the future of space travel.

All seven astronauts on board were killed. Among the crew members was Ronald E. McNair.

A physicist recognized nationally for his work in the field of laser physics who was also notable for being the second African American to fly in space, McNair broke barriers since his childhood in the small community of Lake City, South Carolina. He grew up in the farming town that's located about 90 miles north of Charleston.

"We all knew he was exceptional, but we didn't really know how exceptional until later," said Clyde Bess, who attended the same segregated black high school as McNair.

In 1959, when McNair was just 9 years old, he famously made a scene at the Lake City Public Library. Residents stared the African American boy down and watched as he walked to the main counter and attempted to check out books on advanced science and calculus.

The librarian refused to release them and told him, "We don't circulate books to Negroes."

The passionate young man wouldn't budge, and instead hoisted himself onto the counter and said he wasn't leaving without the books. Library patrons laughed as McNair's feet dangled off the counter while he waited and the librarian called police.

Two police officers arrived at the scene along with McNair's mother, Pearl. They determined the boy was not causing any public disturbance and Pearl convinced the librarian she'd pay for the books if they were not returned. The librarian gave in.

Today, more than 20 schools around the country, several monuments, and the main highway through the town of Lake City are named after Ronald McNair.

"To come from a place that was that tiny, that was that poverty stricken and to still have achieved -- the sky's the limit. You do not let your social surroundings hold you back," said Verlie Tisdale, a high school classmate and now dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Clafin University.

McNair's legacy is now being honored in a weeklong celebration which includes a parade, candlelit vigil, and banquet. Perhaps the most important of this week's events was the opening of the building where over a half a century ago a brave nine year old boy refused to leave without checking out books.

The Lake City Public Library building has been restored and introduced on Saturday as the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. The construction crew even worked over Martin Luther King Jr. Day just to make up for time lost due to weather interruptions.

"We normally don't work on a holiday, but at the same time the building is supposed to be done," said Jason Morse, the job superintendent.

The former library is equipped for community gatherings and classroom visits, and the center's walls feature highlights from McNair's life in Lake City and career with NASA. The newly designed building also includes an amphitheater and is adjacent to a middle school and a park already named after the astronaut.

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