Shelby Jacobs encountered racism and segregation growing up in the Santa Clarita Valley in the 1940s and ’50s. He couldn’t get jobs in places his white peers could, he lived in a segregated area, and he worked for some of his Hart High classmates.
While other African Americans he knew felt victimized, resentful and angry, he never let it bother him, becoming class president before moving on to UCLA, where he became one of the first black mechanical engineers.
His claim to fame is developing the camera system used to photograph the separation of the parts of the Saturn rockets in the Apollo program for NASA. A famous photo and film from the unmanned Apollo 6, launched the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, shows parts falling away against a backdrop of the Earth’s curvature – the first time there was visual proof that our planet is round.
Today, Jacobs is 83 and lives in Oceanside. An exhibit at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey called “Achieving the Impossible: The Life and Dreams of Shelby Jacobs” runs until the end of this month.
NASA named him an unsung hero in 2009. He truly remains a hidden figure, one of many black people who helped the country achieve greatness in the space race.
“I developed a reputation early in life, self-confidence based on my ability to perform at a level equal to or better than my peers,” he said by telephone from his home. “That’s what I did in high school. When I (went) in industry, I did the same thing. I never suffered from a lack of self-confidence that I could do whatever was required to do. I became known as a can-do kind of guy.”
Jacobs was born in Texas and moved to Val Verde in 1945. At the time, Val Verde was one of the few places opened to black people. Jacobs recalled it was the only place between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.
According to a 1984 Los Angeles Times article, “it was one of only a few places blacks could go for recreation, others being Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, a section of Venice Beach and a park in Pasadena that was open to blacks one day a year.”
Jacobs fondly recalled one massive swimming pool there that was nicer than any other pool in the county, other than the one near the Coliseum used for the 1932 Olympics.
“We were the envy of the area because we had an Olympic sized pool,” he said. “Little did they know it was put there to keep us out of other recreational venues. Blacks were sometimes angry (at that).”
He attended Castaic Elementary but did not recall the Confederate flag that flew over Interstate 5 at that time. At Hart, he was one of three black students in his 65-person class. Inside the school walls and on the athletic fields, he excelled, starring in track, basketball and football. He also was elected senior class president.
“He was quite an athlete,” friend Susan Davy remembered.
Outside the school was a different story. His summertime job prospects were slimmer than his white counterparts. While they could work at gas stations or the phone company, his options were limited to busing tables Tip’s Restaurant in Castaic Junction or picking watermelons, cantaloupes and potatoes in the fields.
He would do yard work at the Davy’s home. At the same house, his college-educated mother worked as a maid because she couldn’t find any other work.
“There was considerable class difference between myself and Susan,” he said. “I went to school with people I worked for, my parents worked for.”
When he earned a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at UCLA, Hart Principal George Harris warned Jacobs that there weren’t any black engineers, so his job prospects would be limited.
The second-class treatment was evident, but Jacobs never let it get him down.
“I never exhibited anger because I found out anger only affects me,” he said. “It doesn’t solve the problem, so I refused to be angry about what was going on historically, up to and including now. It was only causing me to harbor anger and hatred, and they would be directed at people who may be innocent of the problems.”
He studied at UCLA for three years but left before graduation to take a job at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park. According to the Los Angeles Times, only eight of the 5,000 engineers were black.
He faced discrimination and racial comments, and earned a lower salary.
In 1961, Jacobs transferred to Rockwell in Downey, where he spent the next 35 years until retiring as upper management in 1996.
It was at Rockwell that he helped design the camera system. He said it was because NASA wanted proof that the parts of the Saturn rocket would safely separate and not damage the vehicle. This was important because President Kennedy had set the goal of reaching the moon before the decade ended, and this was a necessary step.
“The Apollo Saturn (rocket) was the most powerful thing we’d ever built,” he said. “We had to make sure the camera system would endure the environment.”
NASA has said that the separation film and photo are among the most viewed in history.
And it all started in the Santa Clarita Valley.
“I was inclined to be temperamentally suited,” he said. “Many blacks that I knew, historically (and) all my life, had reasons to be angry about our conditions, from slavery (forward). I tended to find the people as divine intervention. I was disposed not to be angry because I had to live in Val Verde.
“I was able to assimilate without carrying the baggage of how ugly the underbelly was/is.”