In April 1951, Mary Winston Jackson joins West Computing. She’d grown up in downtown Hampton, upon the site of a camp founded by slaves who liberated themselves during the Civil War. Now, she works on former plantation land as a black female mathematician, a rebuke to the short-sightedness and racism of people like President Woodrow Wilson who was hell-bent on keeping the Civil Service segregated.
Mary’s role as a black computer on grounds in which black people were once enslaved marks a huge leap forward, but also shows that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done when it comes to racial equality in the US, as she’s still not allowed to work in the same room as her white counterparts.
Mary studies to become a teacher then takes a job as a secretary and bookkeeper at the local USO, working with military families and managing the organization’s financial accounts. Mary’s father was a pillar of the community. Her sister received a citation from President Roosevelt, thanking her for her community service. Mary, meanwhile, took her duties working for the USO seriously. Her family is dedicated to the Double V, victory for blacks and for the nation. She eventually marries a young man named Levi Jackson and leaves the USO after the birth of her son.
Here, Shetterly is introducing Mary Winston Jackson in the context of the elements that have defined and shaped her life trajectory up to this point: her dedication to community service, her parents, and her husband and son. By showing Mary in this context, Shetterly is setting up the idea that her accomplishments belong not just to her, but also to the community she’s a part of and that helped shape her.
Mary organized a girl scout troop and served her community, helping students with their homework, sewing them dresses for school functions, and helping guide them to college. She once arranged an afternoon tea at the Hampton Institute to show students how the school’s African-American president lived, and to show them that they could someday achieve the same heights.
There is a parallel to be drawn here to Dorothy’s own service as a teacher, indicating that the pioneering black computers demonstrated ambition and a dedication to community service from the start, and that it was ingrained in each of their characters.
After joining the Civil Service, Mary worked as a clerk typist then accepted an offer to work as a computer for Dorothy Vaughan, eight years after Dorothy had first joined the NACA.
By juxtaposing Mary and Dorothy here, Shetterly is making the point that Dorothy’s first day at Langley, almost a decade before, helped make everything that will happen for Mary possible.
The grounds had expanded a great deal since Dorothy started work there, as the sound barrier had been breached and the possibilities for flight extended. The military was trying to develop fighter planes capable of supersonic flight. When Mary started working at the NACA in April of 1951, the Cold War had begun and Americans were worried about Communism.
A lot has changed since Dorothy began at Langley, and technological innovation continues to expand and flourish. Socially and politically, things are changing too, as America looks towards a new enemy, the Soviet Union, and moves beyond WWII.
At Langley, an engineer was accused of stealing classified NACA documents and funneling them to the Soviet Union. The FBI began interrogating Langley employees, spending hours questioning physicists and engineers, bringing up notes of the anti-Semitism that accompanied the racial prejudice at the laboratory and the community. A black computer was accused of espionage and fired. She was an outspoken advocate for black empowerment and a local leader of the NAACP, which may have worked against her.
The US also looks for enemies within, sparking new avenues for suppression of integration and equal rights. In some ways, the US fear of communism allows conservatives to ferret out social progressives within Langley and get rid of them under the guise of exposing Communists, yet another threat to progressive black workers fighting for a better position.
The fear of Communism was exploited by people like Senator Harry Byrd to stoke fears and drum up support for segregation. Those who didn’t denounce Communism were subject to accusations of radicalism. Even important black activists like A. Philip Randolph, a socialist who worked hard to ensure fair employment and civil rights legislation, denounced Communism as antithetical to the interests of black people.
The same politicians who resisted integration within the civil service used the Communist threat to further their own agendas, while black revolutionaries had to be careful to dissociate themselves from Communism publically so that they could continue to make progress in their work.
Black leaders like Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and W.E.B. Du Bois connected America’s treatment of black people to European colonialism. They traveled the world making speeches declaring their solidarity with people in other developing countries. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s dedication to segregation was making the nation look bad. Mahatma Gandhi’s personal doctor was banned from a restaurant in the South. A Haitian secretary of agriculture was denied service at a Mississippi Hotel. Headlines decrying the U.S.’s racial problems appeared, handing the Soviet Union effective propaganda weapons. Newly independent nations around the world wondered why they would ever turn to the United States’ model of democracy when the U.S. enforced racism and savagery in its bylaws.
To counter growing opposition abroad, in 1947, Truman desegregated the military through Executive Order 9981. He also issued Executive Order 9980, making heads of each federal department personally responsible for maintaining a work environment free of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. The NACA appointed a fair employment officer to enforce the new rules.
International pressure finally results in important steps being taken towards integration and an end to discrimination at Langley, at least on paper. It’s frustrating and disheartening, however, that this comes about as a result as international pressure, and not because of the country’s dedication to its own black citizens.
Just like supersonic technology was changing the course of the Cold War, so were racial relations. The West Area Computers played a role in both elements. More and more women came to work for “Mrs. Vaughan.” Mary Jackson was one of the young women swept up in the growing wave of black women coming to work at Langley.
Mary and Dorothy represent two different generations of black women who take on jobs at Langley, but they will both confront similar challenges as a result of their race.