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Ken Kelly, a Black space engineer and L.A. housing advocate, dies at 92

A family of four on bicycles in Gardena in 1962.
Kenneth Kelly, his then-wife Loretta and sons David and Ron after moving into an all-white neighborhood in Gardena in 1962.
(David F. Smith / Associated Press)

Kenneth C. Kelly, an early-day electronics engineer whose antenna designs contributed to the race to the moon, made satellite TV and radio possible and helped NASA communicate with Mars rovers and search for extraterrestrials, has died. He was 92.

The engineer also worked to erase race barriers in the Navy, California housing and even on the newspaper comics pages. As a Black resident in Los Angeles, his efforts to buy residences in largely white neighborhoods had been repeatedly rebuffed.

Kelly was battling Parkinson’s disease when he died Feb. 27, his son Ron Kelly said.

Kelly was awarded more than a dozen patents for innovations in radar and antenna technology, work that appears in peer-reviewed journals from 1955 to 1999. His early work at Hughes Aircraft helped create guided missile systems and the ground satellites that tracked the Apollo space missions, he said in an oral history recorded by his family.

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His two-way antenna designs at Rantec Microwave Systems enabled consumers to have DirecTV and Sirius XM connections, and are featured in the massive Mojave Desert radiotelescopes that search for signs of life in space, according to his son and colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

After many years working on deep space missions through NASA subcontractors, Kelly worked directly for JPL from 1999 until retiring in 2002, helping design robotic antennas for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, said Joseph Vacchione, who manages the JPL’s antenna test range.

Kelly appeared in an Associated Press article in 1962 after he moved his family into Gardena, a middle-class suburb that had excluded Black people. To overcome a racist covenant and the repeated refusals of real estate agents, he had to ask a white colleague at Hughes to make the purchase on his behalf.

“We have pretty much the same hopes, fears, ambitions, strengths and frailties that have typified all of human existence,” Kelly wrote in a letter to his white neighbors, urging them to set aside “stereotyped notions,” according to the AP story.

Kelly and his wife Loretta later moved near Cal State Northridge to be closer to his job and have their children attend better schools. According to the 2017 oral history, the agent wouldn’t sell him the lot, so he had to repeat the demeaning experience of having white friends buy it for him before signing over the mortgage.

Kelly became president of the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council, testing listings to prove discrimination, lobbying authorities and going to court to prevent whites-only advertising. To do more from the inside, he became a leading Realtor, helping many Black families move into new suburbs in the 1970s.

Kelly had another role in promoting racial harmony after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A white ally of the Kellys on the Fair Housing Council, schoolteacher Harriet Glickman, had been corresponding with cartoonist Charles Schulz, urging him to add a Black character to his comic strip. At the time, Black people were all but invisible in mass media.

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Letters published by the Charles M. Schulz Museum show the cartoonist was reluctant, fearing the move would seem patronizing to Black people in the wake of King’s death. Glickman recruited Kelly to persuade Schulz otherwise.

Kelly urged the cartoonist to treat the Black character as a “supernumerary” — just another member of the Peanuts gang. The character, Franklin, soon appeared on a beach, helping Charlie Brown build a sandcastle.

Kelly was born in 1928 in New York City and raised by a single mother who worked as a live-in maid. At 13, Kelly began living in the Harlem YMCA, where he was mentored by older Black men, including photographer Gordon Parks. He tested into Brooklyn Tech high school, then enlisted in the Navy to be trained as an electronics technician.

When he was told that he could only be a steward to white officers, he wrote to the chief recruiter and was allowed to take the engineering exam just when President Truman was moving to desegregate the military.

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“I think I’m a crazy optimist,” Kelly said in his oral history. “I’m definitely the half-full glass person. I meet lots of people who are so pessimistic. I always thought I could.”

Kelly’s Navy training helped him excel at Brooklyn Polytechnic College and get a job at Hughes Aircraft in 1953. He later learned that his white colleagues had been polled to see if they would work with a Black man; the few who said they’d quit were told to do so.

Kelly and Loretta were members of the Ethical Cultural Society for decades. He also formed a society of Black scientists and engineers who launched science fairs and outreach programs to minority students in Los Angeles, which was booming with Black people fleeing the South in the post-war period.

“I think the more contact between the ones who have been successful in what they’re doing and the ones who are several steps down the line, the better,” he said.

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Kelly felt racism’s sting repeatedly in life but was determined to overcome it.

“We have a terrible real history of defeat, horrible conditions, death, rapes, just a hell of a history of Blacks in this country, but I don’t think knowing it is that valuable unless it encourages you do more to beat it somehow, and I think we can,” Kelly said in his oral history.

Kelly, who was married three times, is survived by his wife Anne, son Ron, stepson Steve and two grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son David.

Warren writes for the Associated Press.


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