Dorothy Vaughn swears the US Civil Service Oath and accepts her employee badge, a blue metal circle with an image of her face on it and the winged NACA logo on either side. She takes the shuttle bus to the West Area, the office where black computers work.
This badge symbolizes the U.S. Government’s recognition of Dorothy’s potential to contribute to national defense. And yet, her ride to West Area highlights the fact that the organization doesn’t yet think of her as equal to her white peers.
The Langley Laboratory was established in 1917, starting with a single wind tunnel. The lab saved the city of Hampton from economic collapse after Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol was outlawed and the liquor industry, from which a large proportion of Hamptonites earned their income, was brought to a halt. The city’s clerk of courts sold parcels of land to the federal government to test planes and perform aeronautical research.
Shetterly introduces the origins of Langley and, by pointing out that it started with a single wind tunnel, shows how much it has grown. By highlighting the fact that Langley saved the city of Hampton, Shetterly is emphasizing its centrality to the surrounding community, and its importance to the city’s financial well-being.
Construction of the West Area, where the black computers work, started in 1939. In 1942, the entire structure was painted dark green to camouflage the facility against possible attack by Axis forces. Arriving at her office, Dorothy finds herself in a futuristic arena featuring the Sixteen-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, which stretches three hundred feet wide and one hundred feet deep.
The Langley Laboratory has grown a great deal since its inception, something that the sixteen-foot high-speed tunnel, a great technological achievement and an important tool for Langley’s physicists, represents. Dorothy, as an employee at Langley, will now have the chance to grow with it.
Dorothy gets dropped off at the Warehouse Building. Through one window, she has a view of the construction taking place on the Langley grounds. The room is full of black women using calculating machines to research aeronautical engineering at its most finely-detailed level. Dorothy’s work area is segregated from the East Computing Area where white female mathematicians do the exact same work. The white women in the East Area come from schools like Sweetbriar and Hollins, while the West Area computers come from black colleges like the Virginia State College for Negroes and Hampton Institute. The first five black women to work in this area were named Miriam Mann, Pearl Basette, Yvette Brown, Thelma Stiles and Minnie McGraw. The previous May, it was their photo Dorothy had seen in the newspaper.
Dorothy finally encountering black women performing finely detailed mathematics at the highest level would have come as a welcome shock. Here was a place where the mathematical skill that set her apart would finally be put to good use. By naming the black colleges from which the black computers graduated, Shetterly shows that the black women workers who come to Langley to work as computers have similar educational backgrounds to the white workers. Dorothy is just as qualified to be at Langley as her white counterparts.
Margerey Hannah, and her assistant Blanche Sponsler, both of whom are white, run the West Area computing office, under the supervision of Virginia Tucker, also white, who runs the entire computing division. Virginia parcels out assignments to Margerey and Blanche who then pass them down to the other computers, including the West Area Computers. The NACA plans to double the size of the West Area in the coming three years. The American aircraft industry has gone from the country’s forty-third largest industry in 1938 to the world’s number one in 1943.
Just as the American aerospace industry is booming, the face of Langley is changing more rapidly than it has in the past. However, racial relations are not changing at the pace of scientific innovation. Though Dorothy will be working alongside other black female mathematicians, their supervisors are still white, demonstrating that Langley has not granted its black workers equal status to its white employees
The NACA employees go to hear Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox speak about the war effort. He tells them “the war is taking place in the laboratories as well as on the battlefields.” Most of the faces in the room during his speech are white, but a group of about twenty or so black male workers, as well as the faces of the black computers, stare back at him, taking in everything he says.
Frank Knox’s speech is momentous for all the NACA’s scientists, but his visit is all the more significant because of the presence of black men and women in the audience. Knox is speaking to the importance of the work done by everyone at Langley, not just its white employees.
In the cafeteria after this speech, West Computers have to sit together at lunch. A white cardboard sign reading COLORED COMPUTERS marks their table. The black women have had to learn to accept things like this, in spite of the fact that equality in the workplace has recently been mandated by Executive Order 8802. Langley allows the women to work for white engineers, but the facility keeps them separate under Virginia’s “separate but equal” statutes.
The Colored Computers sign is an important indicator of the second-class status black employees had at Langley. Although they were allowed to work there, they were not going to be granted the same rights as whites, and they were also not going to be allowed to forget their place in the Langley hierarchy.
Miriam Mann steals the COLORED COMPUTERS sign and puts it in her purse. The next day the sign is back. Mann steals it again. This small action mirrors a larger one that is playing out in Gloucester County, twenty miles away, where a woman named Irene Morgan is refusing to sit in the Colored section of a Greyhound Bus. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is readying itself to take her case to the Supreme Court.
Mann’s rebelliousness is not only a means of fighting for her dignity and that of the other black computers at Langley. It is also a step in a much larger struggle for equality that is taking place across the country and bolstered by black activists nationwide.