NASA engineer uncovers African-American maritime history

By Brittany Jones, Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 10:37 AM EST

Black History Month is a time for reflection on African-American contributions to our communities, and students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University got a chance to hear from a man who did just that — underwater.

  • Erik Denson studies African-American maritime history
  • Denson helps lead a program called ‘Diving With Purpose’
  • Wants to inspire students of color to live out their dreams

On land, Erik Denson is working his dream job as NASA’s chief electrical engineer and has worked with the agency for more than 20 years. But it’s his passion for diving that inspired him to spend time searching for others who opened the door for his own success.

Denson, who takes pride in sharing his underwater findings, spoke to the Embry-Riddle students about his passion for using scuba diving to expose African-Americans to archaeological maritime.

Denson focuses on African-American contributions in maritime history, and while he said it's dark history, they are stories that need to be brought to light.

“We want to preserve their legacy and keep their accolades and the things they have done, keep that going,” Denson said.

Denson is researching the Guerrero slave ship that sank off the coast of the Florida Keys while carrying more than 500 slaves, as well as the crash of a Tuskegee Airman's plane into Michigan's Lake Huron in 1944.

“I’d like to open their eyes too to other opportunities that they may have not known existed for them. I would like to make sure that their story lives on forever,” Denson said.

Denson helps lead a program called "Diving With Purpose" and has spent a lot of time underwater. He and other divers have found artifacts displaying unique black history.

“Years ago somebody in my position, it was not available to people of color, so they paved the way. They opened the doors, and we have to take advantage of that and continue to open more doors for our young people,” Denson said.

Denson and his organization has documented more than 16 shipwrecks and said they still have much more work to do.

“It allows for it to be perceived from the historical prospective that’s not someplace else like right here right off our own coast,” said Kenneth Hunt, the director of diversity and inclusion at ERAU.

Denson said he’s hoping his purpose will push other students of color to live out their dreams.

“If they see someone of color like them, then they’ll say hey, they can do that, too,” Denson said.

Denson said it will be expensive, but they plan to put up monuments where they found parts of the ship and the plane so everyone can see and remember that part of history.