In 1954, Dorothy Vaughan secures Katherine’s permanent position (and pay raise) as a member of the Flight Research Division. Katherine works for Henry Pearson who is not a big fan of women in the workplace. Dorothy also wields her power to win a raise for a white colleague at the same time.
Dorothy’s influence as a black woman in a senior position means that the success of women after her comes a bit more easily. As people like Dorothy gain power, Langley women slowly become less dependent on the whims of white men in power to advance.
Katherine’s familiarity with higher-level math makes her an important figure in the Flight Research Division. Her confidence leads her to ask the engineers many questions about their work, and they, in turn, enjoy teaching her. Her first assignment is to help find the cause of an accident involving a small Piper propeller plane. Katherine participates in an experiment designed to recreate the circumstances of its crash. Her data leads the team to the conclusion that the plane crossed the flight path of a jet plane that passed through the area half an hour before. Her research catalyzes changes in air traffic regulations mandating minimum distances between flight paths.
Katherine’s contributions to the Flight Research Division demonstrate from the start that her gender and race don’t stop her from performing at the highest level. She uses her intelligence to control her own fate and progress in her career as much as she can. In doing so, she helps Langley advance as well, showing that having black women at Langley helps the organization achieve its stated goals.
Katherine can’t believe her good fortune in getting paid to do math. She also likes her colleagues and feels completely at home at Langley. She ignores the “COLORED” Signs and uses whichever bathroom is closest. She eats lunch at her desk rather than in the segregated cafeteria. She fits in seamlessly with the male engineers around her, and the other men in the Flight Research Division soon accept her as one of them.
Though Katherine enjoys her work and likes the people she works with, she still has to contend with discrimination and segregation on a daily basis. Her choice to ignore the “colored signs” and to eat at her desk are ways in which she controls her own daily existence in a fraught racial situation.
Like other middle-class black families, Jimmy and Katherine move out of Newsome Park, buying a house in a World War II-era neighborhood. But in 1955, Jimmy gets sick from a tumor at the base of his skull and takes leave from his job at the shipyard. He is sick for over a year before he dies in 1956, five days before Christmas.
Katherine’s luck isn’t always good, however, and she suffers from some terrible misfortunes. Now, on top of the challenges of her job at Langley, she becomes a single working mother—yet one more obstacle she’ll have to overcome.
Katherine continues to raise her daughters alone, preparing them for college. She also continues not to be thrown by racism in the workplace, mingling with white and black engineers alike. In January 1957, she goes back to work, 38 years old and a widow, but still a professional pursuing her dream.
Katherine has to contend both with her husband’s death (which left her a single mother) and racism at work. Her persistence in the face of setbacks helps set her apart.