The story of Walter S. McAfee is one of determination, discipline and perseverance. It begins, like so many others, with his parents, Suzie and Luther McAfee in Ore, Texas. Both were well educated, with Luther educated at Texas College, then run by the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and becoming a carpenter.
Walter’s mother, Suzie had studied at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and had qualified as an elementary teacher but she never had a teaching position in a school. In 1912 Suzie took the examination for Texas teacher’s certification. She passed every part, but her spelling paper was mysteriously lost. Her father was told that if he paid $50 (2 months salary then), the paper could be found. Outraged, he refused to pay and Susie could not be a teacher.
Although she never held a teaching position, Susie taught all nine of her children successfully, with all nine ultimately acquiring college degrees, 7 in mathematics and 2 in chemistry. Early 20th Century racism may have cheated her out of a career, but her skills as a teacher to her nine successful children ultimately gave her the last laugh over that racism, giving our nation 9 successful mathematicians and scientists, teaching them a love for learning and how to be serious in their academic pursuits. One can imagine how many more young minds she could have taught and influenced if given the chance.
Walter’s interest in math and physics began in High School in Marshall, TX. He had an influential teacher in chemistry and physics, Freeman Prince Hodge, who recognized Walter’s intellect and passion for learning, often referring to Walter as his “Intellectual giant.”
He went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Wiley College with BS in Mathematics 1934. The Depression was on since 1929 and jobs were hard to find, so to earn money Walter took on several temporary jobs such as farm work, carpenter’s assistant and door-to-door salesman. In 1935 he decided to continue his education and applied to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Due to his academic record he was accepted instantly.
He asked to major in theoretical mathematical physics, was placed immediately and worked under the supervision of Llewellyn H. Thomas, graduating with his Masters Degree in 1937. He was one of the very few African Americans earning advanced degrees at the time. He wanted to continue his studies to earn a Doctorate degree, but decided the best way to earn money while doing so was to be a teacher, so he got a teaching job at a high school in Columbus, Ohio teaching General Science, Mathematics and 9th Grade Biology for 5 years between 1937 and 1942.
It was during this time that he met his future wife, Viola Winston, a French teacher at the same school. They married in 1941. Walter was a hard worker and during the summer months he took advanced classes at the university. He wanted to contribute to the war effort and started to apply for positions. At the time he was rejected often, mostly because at this time applications asked for a photograph to be included, and his black heritage held him back. Finally he applied to join the Electronics Research Command section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, NJ and this time no photograph was required. He was hired right away.
By the time Walter S. McAfee and his wife, Viola moved to South Belmar, NJ in 1942, Walter was already a recognized scientist.
Hired by the US Army Signals Corps to work at the Electronics research Command at Fort Monmouth’s Camp Evans, he started to work right away on Project Diana, the project to attempt to bounce radar signals off the moon.
The team of scientists on the Project certainly knew that their task was hard since two previous attempts had failed. McAfee was well qualified to be on this team for he had published papers on radar-echoing areas, radar cross sections and refraction studies in the atmosphere. McAfee did the necessary mathematical calculations to ensure that Project Diana would succeed, and on January 10, 1946, a successful attempt to bounce a radio signal off the Moon and back to Earth happened.
This was immensely important as this ability to transmit signals to the Moon and back paved the way for the development of the technology that enabled the US to win the Cold War and dominate the Space Race.
The success of the event was hailed in to the press, however official reports of the Project failed to include McAfee’s name, as well as other African -Americans on the project. It wasn’t until months later, after he had moved on to his doctoral studies did he get and press recognition for his work.
Nonetheless, after the success of Project Diana, McAfee was awarded one of three Rosenfeld Fellowships to continue his Doctoral studies at Cornell University in May 1946. His PhD was in Physics and he completed the work in 1948, returned to become Head of the Theoretical Unit of the Nucleonics Section at the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth and was granted his Doctorate by Cornell University in 1949.
He continued to work at Fort Monmouth’s Camp Evans for the rest of his career until his retirement in 1985, all the time living with his wife and two daughters in his home in South Belmar, NJ. He continued to rack up accomplishments and accolades:
In 1953 he became the Head of the Electromagnetic Wave Propagation Section at Ft. Monmouth, and in 1956 he was the first recipient of the Secretary of the Army Research and Study Fellowship. It was to study radio astronomy and solar physics and was presented to McAfee by President Eisenhower. As part of this Fellowship he conducted these studies at Harvard for a year.
During this time McAfee did not forget his love for teaching, and would teach atomic and nuclear physics and solid state electronics classes in the evenings at Monmouth University (then Monmouth College). For him it was important to ensure that the younger generations of scientists and engineers be aware of all the opportunities in front of them, and to instill in them a love and respect for the subjects they studied.
Walter S. McAfee left a legacy larger than the technology he pioneered. His life story is an inspiration to the coming generations of all Americans, an example of what hard work, discipline and perseverance can do to overcome the obstacles that life and society can throw at you.
He was a well recognized American scientist whose contributions to communication technology are widely recognized as the beginning of the “Space Age” and were a precursor to space exploration, satellite communications and missile guidance systems. It was for his life’s work that the Belmar, NJ Post Office was named in his honor in 2019.