It’s 1943. Dorothy is a member of her local parent-teacher association and a founding board member of her town’s chapter of the NAACP. She teaches algebra in a severely underfunded school with eight classrooms and no gym, lockers, or cafeteria. Nevertheless, she maintains high standards, to the point of correcting errors she finds in the school’s textbooks and contacting their publishers. She leads the school choir and helps push them into statewide music competitions. She also teaches a class called “Wartime Mathematics,” using math to help students understand household budgeting and wartime rations, and writing fighter plane trajectories into her lesson plans.
Shetterly provides more examples of the ways in which Dorothy’s background and her work as a teacher prepared her for her success as one of the first black computers at the NACA. Here, Dorothy is shown to be hardworking, detail-oriented, and particularly interested in how math and military technology intersect. Throughout the book, Shetterly will repeat the key phrase “luck favors the prepared,” and here she highlights Dorothy’s preparation, showing how qualified Dorothy was for the job she will ultimately have.
After filing her application to the NACA, Dorothy wins a place there as a Mathematician, Grade P-1, where she’ll earn more than twice her teaching salary. To take the job she has to leave her family and the school and town she loves behind. Langley is too far away for her to come home on weekends, and so she simply says goodbye to her family and tells them she’ll be home for Christmas.
To take advantage of her new opportunities, Dorothy had to be willing to give up the security and comfort of her home and family, something that would have been very difficult to do. These sacrifices are further evidence that it is more than luck that allows Dorothy to make major strides in her career.
Dorothy waits at the Greyhound bus station to board the bus to Newport News, 137 miles away from Farmville. In her new home, she will live in a rented room for black tenants. On the bus, she wonders what it’ll be like to work with white people, whether she will be homesick, and how she will adjust. She wonders how she’ll handle being so far away from her children.
Dorothy’s insecurity about her decisions points to the larger economic insecurities that plagued black people attempting to seek their fortunes in white-dominated work places. In the Jim Crow South, searching for new and better financial opportunities often meant exposing oneself to racism and discrimination, or worse.
Dorothy had supported her husband’s travels for his hotel work. The year before, they’d moved to be closer to his job at the Greenbrier, an upscale, white hotel. The Vaughan children played around the hotel grounds, though they were forbidden to set foot inside. The family rented a house across the street from the home of Joshua Coleman and Howard Vaughan who both worked at the front desk of the Greenbrier, while Dorothy and Joylette Coleman watched the children. Dorothy listened to the Colemans tell stories about their oldest daughter, Katherine Coleman, who was very bright.
Though Katherine was younger than Dorothy, the two women’s families knew one another, and, though they didn’t know it yet, their paths would cross again and again going forward from this point. This shows, once again, the ties among middle-class black families.
Katherine and her brothers and sisters had grown up in rural southwest Virginia. Like Dorothy, Katherine worked as a math teacher, and she too had graduated early from high school and enrolled at a nearby black college. There, William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, a brilliant black mathematician who was only the third black man in the country to earn a PhD in the subject, took her under his wing. He’d graduated from Howard in 1929 and taken a seat in the school’s master’s degree program in mathematics—which was the same opportunity Dorothy had been offered but had been unable to accept because of the Great Depression.
Black men and women in mathematics were divided by the opportunities available to them. Claytor was able to pursue his advanced degree at Howard because, unlike Dorothy, he wasn’t expected to leave school to start a family. Though they were perhaps equally gifted, they did not have the same opportunities to make a mark in their field.
In 1936, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by Charles Hamilton Houston, successfully argued the Supreme Court case Murray vs. Pearson, which brought an end to graduate school admission policies that explicitly barred black students. Afterwards, the NAACP brought another case demanding that states either allow black students to integrate into white schools or provide black students with separate but equal graduate and professional school programs. The state of Virginia refused to comply, and instead set up a fund to subsidize the graduate educations of black students if they pursued them outside of Virginia, a practice that continued until 1950.
Shetterly situates Katherine and Dorothy against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, explaining the ways in which black activists fought to pave the way for integration and worked tirelessly to improve the prospects of black students. The opportunities Dorothy and Katherine were able to pursue came because of the foundation laid down by lawyers and activists before them, again highlighting the importance of community to the forward progress of African-Americans.
West Virginia, where Katherine Coleman was from, did integrate. Katherine Coleman was accepted to West Virginia University in Morgantown in the summer of 1940. She accepted, but then left school after the summer session to be a full-time wife to her husband, a chemistry teacher named Jimmy. Both Katherine and Dorothy followed parallel trajectories in that they chose not to pursue master’s degrees even though they had the opportunity to do so.
Just like Dorothy, Katherine left school to support her family. The odds were stacked against women—especially black women—at this time, because, in general, society expected them to prioritize the home above their careers and ambitions. This was yet another set of circumstances Katherine and Dorothy had to overcome to succeed.
Meanwhile, on the bus to Newport News at the end of November 1943, 32-year-old Dorothy Vaughn has taken a temporary furlough from her job as a teacher to accept the contract job as a computer at Langley. Just like Dorothy, Katherine will ultimately find herself at Langley, too, in a coincidence that resembles destiny.
By emphasizing the role of destiny here in bringing Dorothy and Katherine together at the same time at the NACA, Shetterly highlights the fact that their fates are deeply intertwined. Dorothy will open up the path necessary for Katherine to succeed, though she doesn’t know it yet.