Two years after Mary Jackson joins West Computing, Dorothy Vaughan sends Mary to the East Side to staff her on a project with a group of white computers. She doesn’t know the East area very well, and when she asks the white women there where she can find a bathroom, they laugh at her, telling her they don’t know where the Colored bathroom is. Mary is incredibly angry about the fact that even though she is good enough to work at the NACA, she isn’t good enough to share a toilet with white women.
Mary, like Dorothy before her, will face opposition in the form of racism, segregation, and prejudice in her quest to build a career for herself at Langley. The same small indignities that have plagued black computers at Langley for years, like segregated bathrooms and lunch tables, will plague Mary as well. Technology has changed but policies surrounding race have not.
Later that day, she runs into Kazimierz Czarnecki, an assistant section head in the Four-by-Four-Foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. When he asks her what’s wrong, she tells him what the women said. He asks her to come and work for him so that she will have the chance to rise in ranks and will no longer have to work in the computing pool.
Mary complains about the incident of racism to an engineer and he opts to help her by promoting her. This is a massive stroke of good luck for Mary, though she would not have been able to take advantage of it had she not had the skill to succeed there.
A different female engineer—the woman who paved the way for black computers, Dorothy Hoover— continues to build an illustrious publication record, publishing studies on aircraft wings and other detailed analyses. Dorothy leaves Langley in 1952 to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics. Then she enrolls in a Fellowship Program at the University of Michigan.
Dorothy’s connection to Langley, and her success, show that black women, given the opportunity, can not only keep pace with white male engineers, but can reach the pinnacle of their field if granted the right opportunities.
A black man named James Williams also starts working at the NACA around this time. He is the first black engineer to last for a significant period at Langley. On his first day, he has to convince Langley security that he isn’t a groundskeeper or cafeteria worker so that he can be processed for acceptance. White supervisors refuse to give him a place in their groups, but he eventually wins a position in the Stability Research Division. Unlike the West Area computers, black engineers don’t get to benefit from the support of a group of people who look like them. However, the women have to fight much harder to win the title of engineer.
Institutional racism impacts men and women in different (but similarly insidious) ways. Like the computers, black male engineers, hired for their talent and abilities, have to endure daily humiliations simply to do their jobs. However, black men don’t benefit from the support of a larger pool like the computers do, while black women don’t have as many chances to prove themselves on research teams.
Mary Jackson, working on the Four-by-Four-Foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, is given an assignment by the chief of her division, John Becker, a very important figure at the NACA. He then accuses Mary of making a mistake in the assignment he’s given her, but she insists that she is correct. Sure enough, he discovers that the numbers he gave her in the first place were wrong. Becker apologizes to Mary Jackson, which bolsters her reputation among all the other black female mathematicians. This moment marks her as her as someone who has the capacity to lead.
Here Shetterly puts forth an important example of a black computer having to prove her worth at Langley simply by being better than others—including her supervisor—at the work she’s been assigned to do. Mary’s actions offer more proof that the color of an engineer’s skin and their gender have nothing to do with their ability to do high level work.