Mary Jackson helps her son, Levi, build a car to race in the 1960 soap box derby. She works closely with her son, the way she worked with Kazimierz Czarnecki. They follow the official rules and buy all the equipment. The race sets off from the Twenty-Fifth Street Bridge in Newport News.
Here, Shetterly introduces us to the long-term impact of some of the work the computers did, and its effect on the next generation of black scientists and engineers.
Levi is one of fifty thousand boys to compete in races around the country. Mary is one of the few women who helped build her son’s car. Mary, like other engineers, hopes her children will follow her into her profession. She pushes Levi to take the most challenging math and science classes and helps him with his work. He wins prizes in his school science fair.
Mary’s devotion to her son is an extension of her dedication to her community and to the advancement of her race. Not only does she have to prove she’s worthy of success—she also has to make sure her son can prove the same thing too.
Most black families don’t participate in the soap box derby because advertisements for it appear primarily in white publications. Segregation also makes it difficult for black parents to believe they might win. It takes a lot for a black child to believe he can. Mary is also aware that her daughter would have been rejected from the race outright because of her gender. Frustrated, she does what she can at work and at home to fight against racial and gender inequality.
Mary is actively working against segregation’s larger implications not only through her work at Langley but also by training her son for the soap box derby, since, though it is open to black families, no effort is made to find or recruit them. It falls on Mary’s shoulders to prove to the world that it can be done.
Mary works with the National Technical Association, the professional organization for black engineers and scientists. She brings students from public schools in Hampton to the Langley facility to see the scientists at work and invites career counselors from nearby colleges so they can steer their students towards job opportunities at Langley. She also goes out of her way to help new black employees and find them places to live.
Mary pays her success forward, helping those who could use her encouragement and assistance. Her intrepidness and willingness to help others allows her to give black people the ability to control their destinies and futures, rather than be subject to the control of those in power at Langley, in the same way Dorothy did for the black computers at Langley.
Mary also cultivates friendships with the white women she works with. She collaborates with Emma Jean Landrum, who is also an engineer, and they invite girls from nearby schools to visit Langley and show them how women can work together, and how black women have been embraced, to an extent, at Langley.
Mary is fighting sexism—not just racism—and that means partnering with white women, too.
Mary serves as the leader of one of the largest girl scout troops in the area. Frustrated by the segregated troop system, she campaigns for integration. She nominates her assistant troop leader to visit the Girl Scouts’ national conclave in Cody, Wyoming and she even trains the woman in hiking before she leaves, returning afterwards with a view of what life looks like far away from home.
Mary also supports women outside of work, helping open the doors and expose them to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get, passing down the chance Kaz gave to her when she started out at Langley and helping smooth the way for those who will come after her.
Mary gives everything she has outside of work to community service. She is able to do her job because of women like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Hoover, who demonstrated that black women are capable of the highest level of theoretical aeronautical research. It is important for Mary to give back as much as she’s been given.
Mary is part of a chain and her success is due not simply to her own efforts to succeed, but also to the efforts of those who came before her. She feels obligated to pass this on.
Mary and her son win the soapbox derby race. Levi tells the Norfolk Journal and Guide that he wants to be an engineer like his mother. He wins a trophy and a spot at the national race in Ohio. He is the first black person to win the derby. Mary knows it is an important symbol for the rest of the black community, and she is grateful that there will never again have to be another “first” black winner of the soapbox derby.
By becoming the first black child to win the soapbox derby, Levi shows that it is possible for black competitors to win. The question won’t be posed again going forward. Mary’s dedication to the advancement of black people wasn’t limited to her work at Langley—it was part of her overall personality and a goal in her life.