Jet engines are replacing propellers, supersonic technology is leading to hypersonic technology, and planes are starting to look beyond the limits of the atmosphere to space. Human computers at this time are also giving way to electronic calculating devices, room-sized machines that use paper punch tapes as input and generate answers sixteen times faster than human computers, in addition to not having to adhere to normal human working hours.
The United States aerospace industry continues to thrive, leading to rapid innovation in military technology and within the Langley Laboratory itself. However, just as the end of WWII threatened the jobs of women and African Americans, the accelerating technology of the Cold War threatens to put female computers out of work.
In the mid-1950s, the NACA buys an IBM computer to calculate a trajectory for a plane designed to leave earth’s atmosphere. Electronic computers bring incredible power to the research process. The propeller research tunnel is also declared obsolete around this time. Female mathematicians know they will have to try to find new specialties if they don’t want to be replaced. West Area computers especially have reason to be worried.
Black women at Langley will be particularly affected by this shift. Their position at Langley remains precarious because their work opportunities are limited due to discrimination. Some see the black computers as disposable once electronic computers come on the scene.
Activists in Virginia stage walkouts against the school system that keeps schools segregated and unequal. Their campaign leads to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that bans segregation in all public schools in the United States. Virginia Senator Harry Byrd tries to resist the desegregation order for longer than any other state. Dorothy Vaughan signs up to take computation classes at Hampton Institute, the local black college.
Just as technology is changing rapidly, social change is happening, as well. These changes come at the national level (with Brown v. Board of Education desegregating schools nationwide), the state level (where VA Senator Byrd attempts to block desegregation), and at Langley, where computers have to pursue educational opportunities outside of the office to advance.
Kaz Czarnecki puts Mary Jackson at the controls in the wind tunnel, showing her how to fire up the tunnel’s engines. He suggests that she enroll in the lab’s engineer training program. It is still rare for a woman to win the title of engineer and there are almost no black female engineers. Most of the country’s engineering schools don’t accept women. Mary has to petition the city of Hampton for special permission to attend engineering classes at the local school.
Mary has proven herself able to do the work, she has the support of her boss, and segregation has been outlawed, but Mary still has to fight to take the classes she needs to become an engineer because she is a woman. This shows just how much she was still up against and what she has to overcome to move ahead.
Though she is working in the service of her country, Mary has to beg to be allowed to do so, which is its own special kind of indignity. She gets the pass and takes classes at the all-white school, shocked at how dilapidated it is, and wondering why they do so much to keep black students off its grounds.
The dilapidation of the all white school demonstrates how ridiculous segregationist laws are, and how much racism and segregation hurt everyone. After all, if the black school and the white school joined economic forces, they could build an institution with enough resources for all students.
Thomas Byrdsong, another black engineer, regularly frequents Mary Jackson's home, where they discuss the daily indignities visited upon them. Black engineers face worse racism than the women, unable to rely on their charms like Katherine does or on the group support provided for women by leaders like Dorothy Vaughan.
Even rising to the rank of engineer (and being a man) doesn’t provide an advantage against the discrimination prevalent and Langley. Black men and women find ways to provide support for each other and serve as resources for each other to replace the resources Langley won’t grant them.
Over the next few years, black men and women will continue to fight for their country’s freedom abroad while also fighting discrimination at home.
Thomas and Mary represent the larger black population, working in the service of a country that won’t recognize them as full citizens.