Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley's West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.
The black female mathematicians who walked into Langley in 1943 would find themselves at the intersection of…great transformations, their sharp minds and ambitions contributing to what the United States would consider one of its greatest victories. But in 1943, America existed in the urgent present. Responding to the needs of the here and now Butler took the next step, making a note to add another item to Sherwood’s seemingly endless requisition list: a metal bathroom sign bearing the words Colored Girls.
Dorothy worked as a math teacher…. As a college graduate and a teacher, she stood near the top of what most Negro women could hope to achieve. Teachers were considered the "upper level of training and intelligence in the race” a ground force of educators who would not just impart book learning but live in the Negro community and "direct its thoughts and head its social movements.” Her in-laws were mainstays of the town's Negro elite. They owned a barbershop, a pool hall, and a service station. The family's activities were regular fodder for the social column in the Farmville section of the Norfolk journal and Guide, the leading Negro newspaper in the southeastern United States. Dorothy, her husband, Howard, and their four young children lived in a large, rambling Victorian house on South Main Street with Howard's parents and grandparents.
…At the end of November 1943, at thirty-two years old, a second chance—one that might finally unleash her professional potential—found Dorothy Vaughan. It was disguised as a temporary furlough from her life as a teacher, a stint expected to end and deposit her back in the familiarity of Farmville when her country's long and bloody conflict was over. The Colemans' youngest daughter would eventually find the same second chance years in the future, following Dorothy Vaughan down the road to Newport News, turning the happenstance of a meeting during the Greenbrier summer into something that looked a lot more like destiny.
The American mosaic was on full display, youngsters barely over the threshold of adolescence and men in the sinewy prime of manhood, fresh from the nation's cities, small towns, and countrysides, pooling in the war towns like summer rain. Negro regiments piled in from around the country. One detachment was composed entirely of Japanese Americans. Enlistees from Allied countries, like Chinese medical officers and the first Caribbean Regiment, presented themselves to the port's commanding officers before shipping out. Companies of the Women's Army Corps (WACs) stood ramrod straight and saluted. The port band sent soldiers off with "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” "Carolina in My Mind,” "La Marseillaise”—the melodies of a hundred different hearts and hometowns.
Negroes joined their countrymen in recoiling at the horrors Germany visited upon its Jewish citizens by restricting the type of jobs they were allowed to hold and the businesses they could start, imprisoning them wantonly and depriving them of due process and all citizenship rights, subjecting them to state-sanctioned humiliation and violence, segregating them into ghettos, and ultimately working them to death in slave camps and marking them for extermination. How could an American Negro observe the annihilation happening in Europe without identifying it with their own four-century struggle against deprivation, disenfranchisement, slavery, and violence?
In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers, mostly in public elementary and high schools. Exactly zero percent of those 1940 college graduates became engineers. And yet, in an era when just 10 percent of white women and not even a full third of white men had earned college degrees, the West Computers had found jobs and each other at the "single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world.”
At some point during the war, the colored computers sign disappeared into Miriam Mann’s purse and never came back. The separate office remained, as did the segregated bathrooms, but in the Battle of the West Area Cafeteria, the unseen hand had been forced to concede victory to its petite but relentless adversary… Miriam Mann's insistence on sending the humiliating sign to oblivion gave her and the other women of west computing just a little more room for dignity and the confidence that the laboratory might belong to them as well.
Readers of black newspapers around the country followed the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen with an intensity that bordered on the obsessive. Who said a Negro couldn’t fly! Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and the 332nd Fighter Group took the war to the Axis powers from thirty thousand feet. The papers sent special correspondents to shadow the pilots as they served in the skies over Europe, each dispatch from the European front producing shivers of delight. Flyers Help Smash Nazis! Negro Pilots sink Nazi warship! 332nd Bags 25 Enemy planes, Breaks Record in weekend victories! No radio serial could compete with the real life exploits of the men who were the very embodiment of the Double V.
With victory over the enemies from without assured, Negroes took stock of their own battlefield. Almost immediately after V-J Day, some employers returned to their white, Gentile-only employment policies. The FEPC, however feeble it might have been in reality during the war, had nonetheless become a powerful symbol of employment progress for Negroes and other ethnic minorities. With labor markets loosening, the dream that many black leaders had of establishing a permanent FEPC slipped away with the war emergency, in spite of President Truman's support.
As if trying to redeem his own professional disappointment through the achievements of one of the few students whose ability matched his impossibly high standards, Claytor maintained an unshakable belief that Katherine could meet with a successful future in mathematical research, all odds to the contrary. The prospects for a Negro woman in the field could be viewed only as dismal. If Dorothy Vaughan had been able to accept Howard University's offer of graduate admission, she likely would have been Claytor's only female classmate, with virtually no postgraduate career options outside of teaching, even with a master's degree in hand. In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.
Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers….women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. … Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all.
ln 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys' home countries. Headlines like "Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.
Compared to the white girls, she came to the lab with as much education, if not more. She dressed each day as if she were on her way to a meeting with the president. She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom . . . In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being.
Everything depended on Katherine's ability to hold her family together; she could not fall apart. Or perhaps she would not fall apart. There was, and always had been, about Katherine Goble a certain gravity, a preternatural self-possession … She seemed to absorb the short-term oscillations of life without being dislodged by them, as though she were actually standing back observing that both travail and elation were merely part of a much larger, much smoother curve.
Scientific progress in the twentieth century had been relatively linear; social progress, however, did not move in a straight line, as the descent from the hopeful years after the Civil War into the despairing circumstances of the Jim Crow laws proved. But since World War II, one brick after another had been pried from the walls of segregation. The Supreme Court victories opening graduate education to black students, the executive orders integrating the federal government and the military, the victory, both real and symbolic when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Negro baseball player Jackie Robinson, were all new landings reached, new corners turned, hopes that pushed Negroes to redouble their efforts to sever the link between separate and equal decisively and permanently.
The morning of October 5 was the official dawn of the space age, the public debut of man's competition to break free of the bonds of terrestrial gravity and travel, along with all his belligerent tendencies, beyond Earth's atmosphere.
"Eighty percent of the world's population is colored…In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country. Those countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States."
"Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” she asked the engineers. A postgame recap of the analysis wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being there for the main event. How could she not want to be a part of the discussion? They were her numbers, after all.
Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son's achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.
Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.
Many years later, Katherine Johnson would say it was just luck that of all the computers being sent to engineering groups, she was the one sent to the Flight Research Division to work with the core of the team staffed on an adventure that hadn’t yet been conceived. But simple luck is the random birthright of the hapless. When seasoned by the subtleties of accident, harmony, favor, wisdom, and inevitability, luck takes on the cast of serendipity. Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one thing encounters something else: the unexpected. It comes from being in a position to seize opportunity from the happy marriage of time, place, and chance. It was serendipity that called her in the countdown to John Glenn's flight.
The resonances and dissonances of the images in the book were sharpest there at Langley, ten miles from the point where African feet first stepped ashore in English North America in 1619, less than that from the sprawling oak tree where Negroes of the Virginia Peninsula convened for the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a place with deep and binding tethers to the past, Katherine Johnson, a black woman, was midwifing the future.
At the beginning of the decade, the Space Program and the civil rights movement had shared a similar optimism, a certain idealism about American democracy and the country's newfound drive to distribute the blessings of democracy to all its citizens. On the cusp of the 1970s, as the space program approached its zenith, the civil rights movement—or rather many of the goals it had set out to achieve—were beginning to feel as if they were in a state of suspended animation.
Katherine Johnson is the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white. The power of her story is such that many accounts incorrectly credit her with being the first black woman to work as a mathematician at NASA, or the only black woman to have held the job. She is often mistakenly reported as having been sent to the "all-male" Flight Research Division, a group that included four other female mathematicians, one of whom was also black. One account implied that her calculations singlehandedly saved the Apollo 13 mission. That even Katherine Johnson's remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history.