It as taken a whole 55 years and an exemplary movie Hidden Figures for the world to finally recognise the contributions made by Black African American women in launching John Glen and America’s first satellite into space. In today’s age when NASA’s directors come from all variety of backgrounds, it is easy to forget the pioneers who paved the way for this transformation, into a more accepting society. But it would be unforgivable to overlook the contributions made by some very courageous women who challenged and persevered against discrimination, every step of the way. One of such pioneers was Dorothy Vaughan, a respected mathematician who became NASA’s first African-American manager serving as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958.
Dorothy was born on 20 September, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. But, at age 7, she moved to West Virginia with her parents. Dorothy graduated from Beechurst High School in 1925 and four years later received a Bachelor of Science degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio. Dorothy Johnson became Dorothy Vaughan in 1932 after she married Howard Vaughan.
After her marriage, Dorothy balanced two different lives of being a mathematics teacher at a High School in Farmville, Virginia and a good housewife. In 1943, when Dorothy moved to Newport New, she came across an opportunity to be employed as a mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In her mind, the job would be just temporary, but little did she knew that she would create history, defeating all types of discrimination and norms, paving her way into history’s golden books. She was offered this job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory two years after Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive order 8802, which prohibited discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity in the defence industry came into action. Therefore, to compensate for the high demand of processing aeronautical research data, ‘it made sense’ to NASA to employ coloured women to do minute tasks while giving them the occasion to exhibit the ‘diversity’ in NASA work-force.
While Executive Orders by Roosevelt may be inscribed on paper to portray the ‘justice’ in America, it would be a long time before nondiscrimination was inscribed on a society’s mind which saw African-American women as ‘unfit’ for work at such respectful institutions. Thus, the Jim-Crow laws prevailed and brought cruel laws into practice at both state and local level. This meant that at NASA ‘coloured’ mathematicians were not allowed to use the same dining and restroom facilities as the white work force. From segregated work units (West Area Computing for African-American women) to segregated kettle and coffee mug, Dorothy along with other coloured women had to face harsh conditions, despite working hard day and night, making great personal sacrifices along the way, to crack hard mathematical calculations for NASA’s space missions.
However, to everyone’s shock, the West Computing area made a recognition for themselves by their strong work etiquette. In 1949, Dorothy was promoted as head of the group, making her the first black supervisor at NACA. Noticing her excellent work, many engineers at NASA came to ask for her valuable opinion on many projects. Although being discriminated by the white work force, Dorothy often intervened for the rights of people working in ‘white computer areas’ if they were mistreated in any way. This tenacity to never limit herself because of her colour, allowed her to save the jobs of many black women under her wing, whose livelihood was dependent on the little pay they received working at NACA.
In 1958, when NACA was transitioning to NASA, the segregated facilities and the jobs of the African American women working in those facilities were to be abolished. NASA, moving forward with technology, decided to establish an electronic computing facility with IBM computers that would be able to solve large calculations for aeronautical research in a much shorter time compared to human workforce. This meant that there was no further need for the women of West Computing Area as their work would now be deemed too slow and time-wasting.
However, Dorothy knew that a lot of lives were at stake and she couldn’t just accept this diminishing fate, not after she spent all her life fighting for the equal opportunities for black women. So she decided she would teach herself and all the women in West Computing Area the coding and programming required to run these new computers as there was a shortage of workforce who were able to operate the machinery of Analysis and Computational Division (ACD). From a book Dorothy had to steal from her local library (as black Americans were not allowed to read the same books as white Americans in the library; Dorothy and her sons were forced to leave the library for asking to borrow a book on Computing) she taught herself and the other women of the West Computing area, the FORTRAN programmer. Little did she know, she had opened a gateway of opportunities for black women to exhibit their knowledge and talents, establishing themselves in a white male dominated sector. Miracles were blossoming in a small division of NASA, staring discrimination in its face.
After her retirement in 1971, Dorothy tried to seek another management position in Langley, NASA, but she could never receive another one. However, her legacy continues to this day, in every black individual who can pursue whatever career they choose, and whatever book they want to borrow, free of any discrimination.
To perform a hard job is a challenge, but to outperform a hard job with very low pay, not being shown any appreciation, always being looked down upon just because of skin colour and be forced to remain in segregated area was a heart-wrenching experience that Dorothy braved with a kind smile on her face till the last day. If this doesn’t speak volumes about the courage and determination of this inspiring woman, I don’t know what else in this world will.
Written for Sheroes of History by Jasmin Kaur
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In this video Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy in the film, talks about the real-life Dorothy: