In the summer of 1943, 32-year-old Dorothy Vaughn works in the sorting station of a massive laundry room at Camp Pickett in central Virginia. The women who work there fold socks and trousers for the black and white solders who come to Camp Pickett for basic training. They worry over their loved ones who are headed off from Virginia to fight in World War II. Most of the women have left behind jobs working as domestic servants or laborers to work in the laundry. They earn 40 cents an hour, which means that they are paid the least of all those who work in the service of the war. Nonetheless, it feels like a lot to them.
Here, Shetterly establishes the type of labor generally available to black women at the time when Langley opened its doors to them. Shetterly is about to show us how much more they are capable of, and how much they are able to prove themselves once they get higher level jobs. This contrast drives home the injustice of the denial of equal opportunity for black women.
Dorothy, a recent college graduate, also works a job in Farmville, Virginia as a teacher. Teachers are considered very accomplished in the black community because they are thought of as the leaders of social movements. Vaughn’s husband’s parents are business owners and members of the black elite, and her family’s name regularly appears in the social columns in the newspaper. She lives in a large Victorian house with her in-laws and their parents.
Dorothy’s work as a teacher signals that she is a woman from a middle class background and an important member of her community. It also shows that Dorothy was already relatively privileged when she came to work at Langley, hinting at the class dynamic of the book: it was only women who could afford an education who were hired at Langley.
Dorothy eagerly accepts the work at Camp Pickett, even though another woman in her position and of her status might have looked down on it. The laundry is 40 miles away from her home, which means she has to live in worker housing during the week. But the 40 cents an hour is more than what she earns as a math teacher, and she has four children who can use the extra money. She wants to use it to send them to college. Even the most successful black people know that discrimination can, at any moment, destroy everything they have built, and a good education will offer her children a better chance at a good life.
Dorothy’s work at Camp Pickett points to the sacrifices many black women had to make at this time simply to ensure a future for their children. Dorothy was not without resources or connections, and yet she had to go to great lengths to support her family. Due to racial discrimination and economic inequality, black families had to work harder than whites for less pay to ensure their children’s’ futures.
Dorothy knows the money she is making at the laundry will buy school clothes and help her send her children to school. They inform every move she makes, though she often has to choose between spending time with them and working to make sure they have what they need.
This moment shows the difficult choices black women faced: to support their children, they often couldn’t spend as much time with them as they wanted. This is cruel and tragic.
Dorothy was born in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother died when she was two, and her father, a waiter, married Susie Johnson, a housekeeper. Susie taught Dorothy to read before she started school, which allowed her to skip two grades. She also enrolled Dorothy in piano lessons. Dorothy graduated early from high school as valedictorian, then won a full-tuition scholarship to Wilberforce University, the country’s oldest private black college. The African Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Convention of West Virginia underwrote her scholarship.
Shetterly sets the groundwork for Dorothy’s success, highlighting the resources she had access to because of her supportive family and community. From her work at Camp Pickett, it’s clear that Dorothy is hardworking and focused, but this passage makes clear her intelligence and ambition. These elements all play a major role in her story, ultimately leading her to Langley.
At Wilberforce, Dorothy’s professors recommended her for a master’s degree in mathematics at Howard University, which was the best black university in the country. The first two black men in the country to earn PhDs in mathematics ran the department. Dorothy decided not to go to graduate school, however. The Great Depression had just begun and Dorothy’s parents could not find work. She stayed home to help out and to ensure that her sister could also go to college. Dorothy was only 19 but she felt a great responsibility towards her family, so she chose to pursue a degree in education and become a teacher, which was the most stable career she would be able to find. At the time, black colleges got calls from schools nationwide requesting teachers and Dorothy, through her alma mater, landed a job at a school in rural Illinois.
The fact that Dorothy made it into the master’s program at Howard as a young woman signals that she was a rare talent. However, Shetterly also indicates that Dorothy was subject to the same constraints that restricted the opportunities available to many women (black and white) at the time. Women were expected to take care of their families, pursue stable careers, and work in the service of others uncomplainingly before they could follow their own ambitions.
Dorothy lost her job, however, when the Depression led the school to close after her first year. After losing a second teaching job, she took a job as a waitress until 1941, when she took a teaching job in Farmville. There, she met Howard Vaughan, a bellman for various hotels in the region. The two married. While he traveled for work, she attended Beulah AME Church, becoming the church’s pianist.
Here, Shetterly emphasizes Dorothy’s resilience. Though she was brilliant enough to get into a master’s program in math, Dorothy faces tremendous obstacles in finding work, even as a teacher. Even though Dorothy’s intelligence and ambition are thwarted at every turn, she still builds a meaningful life for herself, finding work, community, and family.
In 1943, Dorothy goes to the post office and sees Melvin Butler’s bulletin advertising jobs at the NACA. She also sees an article about the job in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. The article is called “Paving the Way for Women Engineers” and under the headline, Dorothy spots a picture of eleven “well-dressed Negro women,” all graduates of Hampton’s engineering school. This opportunity represents something Dorothy has never imagined for herself before. That spring, she fills out the application.
Serendipity and luck play a massive role in the fates of Shetterly’s computers, and this is only the first of many moments in the book that demonstrate this. Dorothy happens to see this article and to have the resources to apply, which is lucky. However, it’s not only luck—her preparation for the role, her intelligence, and her persistence ultimately allow her to succeed.