CHICAGO HISTORY AT HOME
A Dancer among the Stars
“Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.”
In 1992, when Dr. Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to travel into space, she fulfilled one childhood dream while highlighting another interest—dance. Both of these lifelong passions began while growing up in Chicago.
Mae Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956. The youngest of three children, she was three years old when her family moved to Chicago, first living in Woodlawn and eventually settling in Morgan Park. Her father, Charlie, worked as a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization, as well as a roofer and carpenter, and her mother, Dorothy, taught English and math at Ludwig Van Beethoven Elementary School in Bronzeville. As a young girl, Jemison showed an interest in science and enjoyed reading science fiction and books about astronomy. The televised Apollo and Gemini space flights during the late 1960s and early 1970s further inspired her to pursue a path in the STEM fields. Jemison also began taking dance lessons at age nine and was involved in dance and theater productions. She considered becoming a professional dancer, but her mother advised her to do so after college, saying “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
A stellar student, Jemison graduated from Morgan Park High School at age sixteen and attended Stanford University on a scholarship. There, she majored in chemical engineering and African and Afro-American Studies, graduating in 1977. Jemison then moved to New York City to earn her MD at what is now Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. Being in New York gave her the opportunity to take lessons at the Ailey School, which is affiliated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). Founded in 1958 by dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, the visionary modern dance company is often regarded as the foremost dance interpreter of the African American experience.
Jemison graduated from medical school in 1981 and then served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Upon returning to the US in 1985, she entered private practice in Los Angeles and began attending graduate engineering courses. After seeing the 1983 flights of Guion Bluford and Sally Ride, the first African American in space and the first American woman in space, respectively, Jemison felt empowered to apply to NASA’s astronaut training program. She was accepted in 1987 and was selected to serve as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992.
Prior to the flight, Jemison wrote to Judith Jamison, a renowned dancer and then-AAADT director, asking to bring Jamison’s costume for Cry up to space with her. While the costume was unavailable, AAADT sent her a book about Alvin Ailey and a poster autographed by Jamison, which orbited the Earth with Jemison during September 12–20.
The above photograph shows Dr. Jemison during a visit to her alma mater Morgan Park High School in Chicago after her historic flight. You can see it and many other Chicago Sun-Times images now on view in Millions of Moments: The Chicago Sun-Times Photo Collection.
Dr. Mae Jemison dances with the Morgan Park High School pom-pom team, Chicago, October 15, 1992. Photograph by John H. White for the Chicago Sun-Times ST-17500823, Chicago Sun-Times collection, CHM