LE ROY — Born in Le Roy in 1917, Dorothy Layne McIntyre paved her way into history by becoming the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license under the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
McIntyre will be one of the women highlighted in the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s latest exhibit which will be opening on Friday, Changemakers: Rochester Women Who Changed the World.
“This is one of the stories that we’re really excited to be able to feature in the Changemakers,” said Kathryn Murano Santos, senior director for Collections and Exhibitions for the Rochester Museum & Science Center. “I had personally never heard of Dorothy Layne McIntyre, so it was very exciting to learn more about her story and really be inspired by her example and what she went through, and what she was able to achieve.”
Life was hard for McIntyre when she was young. Her mother passed away, so she lived with her grandparents for awhile until her father remarried. While living in Le Roy, Santos said McIntyre became interested in flight by attending air shows, and she even got the chance to go up in flight a couple of times with local aviators.
McIntyre got accepted into the cadet program at West Virginia State College, which only accepted one woman for every 10 men, where she would eventually earn her pilot’s license under the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
“Even after becoming certified to fly, she became a WASP — a Woman Airforce Service Pilot — but at that time they denied her even though she met all the qualifications to become a WASP. She wasn’t able to because she was a black woman,” Santos said. “So you know, an example of intense discrimination that she faced in the field, but later on she did a lot of other interesting things.”
Moving to Baltimore, McIntyre taught factory workers in a war production training school about aircraft mechanics, and worked full-time as a secretary for the Baltimore Urban League.
McIntyre was first brought to the Rochester Museum and Science Center’s attention by Stephanie Ball, who worked as a librarian and archivist, who saw her story on Le Roy’s Then and Now Facebook page. Lynne Belluscio, Le Roy Town historian, had done a lot of research already on McIntyre and it was through her help and research, Santos said, the museum was able to learn more about McIntyre’s story.
“I am really glad that her accomplishments are being acknowledged on a much larger scale,” Belluscio said. McIntyre was brought to her attention when she was shown the book on African American pioneers in space and aviation. At the time, she was amazed little was known about McIntyre and sent Belluscio on a journey to learn more about her.
After getting contacted by the museum that they wanted to include McIntyre, the only photo of McIntyre the historical society had at the time was from the 1936 Le Roy year book. Belluscio was able to acquire a copy of the book on African American pioneers in space and aviation, which had a picture of McIntyre standing in front of her airplane. The credits had acknowledged them as McIntyre’s, but by then she had passed away so Belluscio made contact with her daughters to get a better picture.
Belluscio also managed to track the online interviews McIntyre did through two oral history projects.
“She had some just absolutely wonderful comments to make about the fact she applied for a job after she had gotten her pilot’s license, and they said come to Baltimore right away — which is actually where Dorothy’s sister was living at the time — and as soon as she walked in the door, they said oh no the job is already filled. She said that happened a lot at that time, and that was before World War II,” Belluscio said. “She talks a little about discrimination, and what it was like growing up. She talks a bit about the discrimination in Le Roy, although she said it wasn’t that obvious, but like a lot of other places it did occur.”
After having her two daughters, McIntyre stopped flying and worked as a 6th grade teacher and worked in community resources.
The Changemakers will be open to the public in the Riedman Gallery and adjacent spaces on the third floor of the Museum through Spring 2021. The exhibition stretches across 7,000 square feet and shares compelling, authentic, and lesser-known narratives of women from the Rochester region and sovereign Haudenosaunee Confederacy who left their mark on history and the world.
The Changemakers exhibit has been in the works for the past two years, but with the COVID epidemic, the museum had unique challenges to develop the exhibit. Normally they have exhibits which are more hands on, but for this they have experiences triggered by motion sensors, so people don’t have to touch things as much. There is also large durable parts which can be easily cleaned and sanitized — such as the fact the exhibit will feature a flight simulation experience in an actual decommissioned Cessna plane. So visitors will be able to “take off” from the Rochester airport and test their skill at flying.
They also worked with community curators to have a lot of different diverse perspectives and voices in an effort to have everyone to be able to see themselves in the Changemakers. Santos said as a result, the museum was able to have a very equitable representation of women in the exhibition and have an authentic voice for their stories.
“This is really exciting for us,” Santo said. “I think women’s stories in general are not told enough in our society, and the mainstream narrative suppresses and hides and ignores women’s stories. So this exhibit really clearly shows that women have made really important contributions throughout history, and into the present day. They’re continuing to make impacts in all areas of our lives.”