Mrs. Land worked as a computer out at Langley,” my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of First Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia.
My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico. They squired us around town in their twenty-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbors we’d bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a sixty-six-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University. He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.
During our time home, I spent afternoons with my mother catching matinees at the local cinema, while Aran tagged along with my father and his friends to Norfolk State University football games. We gorged on fried-fish sandwiches at hole-in-the-wall joints near Buckroe Beach, visited the Hampton University Museum’s Native American art collection, and haunted local antiques shops.
As a callow eighteen-year-old leaving for college, I’d seen my hometown as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the city’s hold on my identity, and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me.
That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs. Land, who had been one of my favorite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired NASA mathematician, still lived on her own well into her nineties and never missed a Sunday at church. We said our good-byes to her and clambered into the minivan, off to a family brunch. “A lot of the women around here, black and white, worked as computers,” my father said, glancing at Aran in the rearview mirror but addressing us both. “Kathryn Peddrew, Ophelia Taylor, Sue Wilder,” he said, ticking off a few more names. “And Katherine Johnson, who calculated the launch windows for the first astronauts.”
The narrative triggered memories decades old, of spending a much-treasured day off from school at my father’s office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center. I rode shotgun in our 1970s Pontiac, my brother, Ben, and sister Lauren in the back as our father drove the twenty minutes from our house, straight over the Virgil I. Grissom Bridge, down Mercury Boulevard, to the road that led to the NASA gate. Daddy flashed his badge, and we sailed through to a campus of perfectly straight parallel streets lined from one end to the other by unremarkable two-story redbrick buildings. Only the giant hypersonic wind tunnel complex—a one-hundred-foot ridged silver sphere presiding over four sixty-foot smooth silver globes—offered visual evidence of the remarkable work occurring on an otherwise ordinary-looking campus.
Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.
My dad joined Langley in 1964 as a coop student and retired in 2004 an internationally respected climate scientist. Five of my father’s seven siblings made their bones as engineers or technologists, and some of his best buddies—David Woods, Elijah Kent, Weldon Staton—carved out successful engineering careers at Langley. Our next-door neighbor taught physics at Hampton University. Our church abounded with mathematicians. Supersonics experts held leadership positions in my mother’s sorority, and electrical engineers sat on the board of my parents’ college alumni associations. My aunt Julia’s husband, Charles Foxx, was the son of Ruth Bates Harris, a career civil servant and fierce advocate for the advancement of women and minorities; in 1974, NASA appointed her deputy assistant administrator, the highest-ranking woman at the agency. The community certainly included black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors, and contractors, black cobblers, wedding planners, real estate agents, and undertakers, several black lawyers, and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.
My father, growing up during segregation, experienced a different reality. “Become a physical education teacher,” my grandfather said in 1962 to his eighteen-year-old son, who was hell-bent on studying electrical engineering at historically black Norfolk State College.
In those days, college-educated African Americans with book smarts and common sense put their chips on teaching jobs or sought work at the post office. But my father, who built his first rocket in junior high metal shop class following the Sputnik launch in 1957, defied my grandfather and plunged full steam ahead into engineering. Of course, my grandfather’s fears that it would be difficult for a black man to break into engineering weren’t unfounded. As late as 1970, just 1 percent of all American engineers were black—a number that doubled to a whopping 2 percent by 1984. Still, the federal government was the most reliable employer of African Americans in the sciences and technology: in 1984, 8.4 percent of NASA’s engineers were black.
NASA’s African American employees learned to navigate their way through the space agency’s engineering culture, and their successes in turn afforded their children previously unimaginable access to American society. Growing up with white friends and attending integrated schools, I took much of the groundwork they’d laid for granted.
Every day I watched my father put on a suit and back out of the driveway to make the twenty-minute drive to Building 1236, demanding the best from himself in order to give his best to the space program and to his family. Working at Langley, my father secured my family’s place in the comfortable middle class, and Langley became one of the anchors of our social life. Every summer, my siblings and I saved our allowances to buy tickets to ride ponies at the annual NASA carnival. Year after year, I confided my Christmas wish list to the NASA Santa at the Langley children’s Christmas party. For years, Ben, Lauren, and my youngest sister, Jocelyn, still a toddler, sat in the bleachers of the Langley Activities Building on Thursday nights, rooting for my dad and his “NBA” (NASA Basketball Association) team, the Stars. I was as much a product of NASA as the Moon landing.
The spark of curiosity soon became an all-consuming fire. I peppered my father with questions about his early days at Langley during the mid-1960s, questions I’d never asked before. The following Sunday I interviewed Mrs. Land about the early days of Langley’s computing pool, when part of her job responsibility was knowing which bathroom was marked for “colored” employees. And less than a week later I was sitting on the couch in Katherine Johnson’s living room, under a framed American flag that had been to the Moon, listening to a ninety-three-year-old with a memory sharper than mine recall segregated buses, years of teaching and raising a family, and working out the trajectory for John Glenn’s spaceflight. I listened to Christine Darden’s stories of long years spent as a data analyst, waiting for the chance to prove herself as an engineer.
Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon. These women’s paths set the stage for mine; immersing myself in their stories helped me understand my own.
Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.
In the early stages of researching this book, I shared details of what I had found with experts on the history of the space agency. To a person they encouraged what they viewed as a valuable addition to the body of knowledge, though some questioned the magnitude of the story.
“How many women are we talking about? Five or six?”
I had known more than that number just growing up in Hampton, but even I was surprised at how the numbers kept adding up. These women showed up in photos and phone books, in sources both expected and unusual. A mention of a Langley job in an engagement announcement in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. A handful of names from the daughter of one of the first West Computers. A 1951 memo from the Langley personnel officer reporting on the numbers and status of its black employees, which unexpectedly made reference to one black woman who was a “GS-9 Research Scientist.” I discovered one 1945 personnel document describing a beehive of mathematical activity in an office in a new building on Langley’s west side, staffed by twenty-five black women coaxing numbers out of calculators on a twenty-four-hour schedule, overseen by three black shift supervisors who reported to two white head computers. Even as I write the final words of this book, I’m still doing the numbers. I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research.
And while the black women are the most hidden of the mathematicians who worked at the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and later at NASA, they were not sitting alone in the shadows: the white women who made up the majority of Langley’s computing workforce over the years have hardly been recognized for their contributions to the agency’s long-term success. Virginia Biggins worked the Langley beat for the Daily Press newspaper, covering the space program starting in 1958. “Everyone said, ‘This is a scientist, this is an engineer,’ and it was always a man,” she said in a 1990 panel on Langley’s human computers. She never got to meet any of the women. “I just assumed they were all secretaries,” she said. Five white women joined Langley’s first computing pool in 1935, and by 1946, four hundred “girls” had already been trained as aeronautical foot soldiers. Historian Beverly Golemba, in a 1994 study, estimated that Langley had employed “several hundred” women as human computers. On the tail end of the research for Hidden Figures, I can now see how that number might top one thousand.
To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high. I’m sensitive to the cognitive dissonance conjured by the phrase “black female mathematicians at NASA.” From the beginning, I knew that I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research that these women applied to theirs. Because as exciting as it was to discover name after name, finding out who they were was just the first step. The real challenge was to document their work. Even more than the surprisingly large numbers of black and white women who had been hiding in a profession seen as universally white and male, the body of work they left behind was a revelation.
There was Dorothy Hoover, working for Robert T. Jones in 1946 and publishing theoretical research on his famed triangle-shaped delta wings in 1951. There was Dorothy Vaughan, working with the white “East Computers” to write a textbook on algebraic methods for the mechanical calculating machines that were their constant companions. There was Mary Jackson, defending her analysis against John Becker, one of the world’s top aerodynamicists. There was Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, describing the orbital trajectory of John Glenn’s flight, the math in her trailblazing 1959 report as elegant and precise and grand as a symphony. There was Marge Hannah, the white computer who served as the black women’s first boss, coauthoring a report with Sam Katzoff, who became the laboratory’s chief scientist. There was Doris Cohen, setting the bar for them all with her first research report—the NACA’s first female author—back in 1941.
My investigation became more like an obsession; I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end. I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in a way that meant they would never again be lost to history. As the photos and memos and equations and family stories became real people, as the women became my companions and returned to youth or returned to life, I started to want something more for them than just putting them on the record. What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.
Today, my hometown—the hamlet that in 1962 dubbed itself “Spacetown USA”—looks like any suburban city in a modern and hyperconnected America. People of all races and nationalities mingle on Hampton’s beaches and in its bus stations, the WHITES ONLY signs of the past now relegated to the local history museum and the memories of survivors of the civil rights revolution. Mercury Boulevard no longer conjures images of the eponymous mission that shot the first Americans beyond the atmosphere, and each day the memory of Virgil Grissom fades away from the bridge that bears his name. A downsized space program and decades of government cutbacks have hit the region hard; today, an ambitious college grad with a knack for numbers might set her sights on a gig at a Silicon Valley startup or make for one of the many technology firms that are conquering the NASDAQ from the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, DC.
But 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.
A Door Opens
Melvin Butler, the personnel officer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, had a problem, the scope and nature of which was made plain in a May 1943 telegram to the civil service’s chief of field operations. “This establishment has urgent need for approximately 100 Junior Physicists and Mathematicians, 100 Assistant Computers, 75 Minor Laboratory Apprentices, 125 Helper Trainees, 50 Stenographers and Typists,” exclaimed the missive. Every morning at 7:00 a.m., the bow-tied Butler and his staff sprang to life, dispatching the lab’s station wagon to the local rail depot, the bus station, and the ferry terminal to collect the men and women—so many women now, each day more women—who had made their way to the lonely finger of land on the Virginia coast. The shuttle conveyed the recruits to the door of the laboratory’s Service Building on the campus of Langley Field. Upstairs, Butler’s staff whisked them through the first-day stations: forms, photos, and the oath of office: I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . . so help me God.
Thus installed, the newly minted civil servants fanned out to take their places in one of the research facility’s expanding inventory of buildings, each already as full as a pod ripe with peas. No sooner had Sherwood Butler, the laboratory’s head of procurement, set the final brick on a new building than his brother, Melvin, set about filling it with new employees. Closets and hallways, stockrooms and workshops stood in as makeshift offices. Someone came up with the bright idea of putting two desks head to head and jury-rigged the new piece of furniture with a jump seat in order to squeeze three workers into space designed for two. In the four years since Hitler’s troops overran Poland—since American interests and the European war converged in an all-consuming conflict—the laboratory’s complement of 500-odd employees at the close of the decade was on its way to 1,500. Yet the great groaning war machine swallowed them whole and remained hungry for more.
The offices of the Administration Building looked out upon the crescent-shaped airfield. Only the flow of civilian-clothed people heading to the laboratory, the oldest outpost of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), distinguished the low brick buildings belonging to that agency from identical ones used by the US Army Air Corps. The two installations had grown up together, the air base devoted to the development of America’s military airpower capability, the laboratory a civilian agency charged with advancing the scientific understanding of aeronautics and disseminating its findings to the military and private industry. Since the beginning, the army had allowed the laboratory to operate on the campus of the airfield. The close relationship with the army flyers served as a constant reminder to the engineers that every experiment they conducted had real-world implications.
The double hangar—two 110-foot-long buildings standing side by side—had been covered in camouflage paint in 1942 to deceive enemy eyes in search of targets, its shady and cavernous interior sheltering the machines and their minders from the elements. Men in canvas jumpsuits, often in groups, moved in trucks and jeeps from plane to plane, stopping to hover at this one or that like pollinating insects, checking them, filling them with gas, replacing parts, examining them, becoming one with them and taking off for the heavens. The music of airplane engines and propellers cycling through the various movements of takeoff, flight, and landing played from before sunrise until dusk, each machine’s sounds as unique to its minders as a baby’s cry to its mother. Beneath the tenor notes of the engines played the bass roar of the laboratory’s wind tunnels, turning their on-demand hurricanes onto the planes—plane parts, model planes, full-sized planes.
Just two years prior, with the storm clouds gathering, President Roosevelt challenged the nation to ramp up its production of airplanes to fifty thousand per year. It seemed an impossible task for an industry that as recently as 1938 had only provided the Army Air Corps with ninety planes a month. Now, America’s aircraft industry was a production miracle, easily surpassing Roosevelt’s mark by more than half. It had become the largest industry in the world, the most productive, the most sophisticated, outproducing the Germans by more than three times and the Japanese by nearly five. The facts were clear to all belligerents: the final conquest would come from the sky.
For the flyboys of the air corps, airplanes were mechanisms for transporting troops and supplies to combat zones, armed wings for pursuing enemies, sky-high launching pads for ship-sinking bombs. They reviewed their vehicles in an exhaustive preflight checkout before climbing into the sky. Mechanics rolled up their sleeves and sharpened their eyes; a broken piston, an improperly locked shoulder harness, a faulty fuel tank light, any one of these could cost lives. But even before the plane responded to its pilot’s knowing caress, its nature, its very DNA—from the shape of its wings to the cowling of its engine—had been manipulated, refined, massaged, deconstructed, and recombined by the engineers next door.
Long before America’s aircraft manufacturers placed one of their newly conceived flying machines into production, they sent a working prototype to the Langley laboratory so that the design could be tested and improved. Nearly every high-performance aircraft model the United States produced made its way to the lab for drag cleanup: the engineers parked the planes in the wind tunnels, making note of air-disturbing surfaces, bloated fuselages, uneven wing geometries. As prudent and thorough as old family doctors, they examined every aspect of the air flowing over the plane, making careful note of the vital signs. NACA test pilots, sometimes with an engineer riding shotgun, took the plane for a flight. Did it roll unexpectedly? Did it stall? Was it hard to maneuver, resisting the pilot like a shopping cart with a bad wheel? The engineers subjected the airplanes to tests, capturing and analyzing the numbers, recommending improvements, some slight, others significant. Even small improvements in speed and efficiency multiplied over millions of pilot miles added up to a difference that could tip the long-term balance of the war in the Allies’ favor.
“Victory through airpower!” Henry Reid, engineer-in-charge of the Langley laboratory, crooned to his employees, the shibboleth a reminder of the importance of the airplane to the war’s outcome. “Victory through airpower!” the NACA-ites repeated to each other, minding each decimal point, poring over differential equations and pressure distribution charts until their eyes tired. In the battle of research, victory would be theirs.
Unless, of course, Melvin Butler failed to feed the three-shift-a-day, six-day-a-week operation with fresh minds. The engineers were one thing, but each engineer required the support of a number of others: craftsmen to build the airplane models tested in the tunnels, mechanics to maintain the tunnels, and nimble number crunchers to process the numerical deluge that issued from the research. Lift and drag, friction and flow. What was a plane but a bundle of physics? Physics, of course, meant math, and math meant mathematicians. And since the middle of the last decade, mathematicians had meant women. Langley’s first female computing pool, started in 1935, had caused an uproar among the men of the laboratory. How could a female mind process something so rigorous and precise as math? The very idea, investing $500 on a calculating machine so it could be used by a girl! But the “girls” had been good, very good—better at computing, in fact, than many of the engineers, the men themselves grudgingly admitted. With only a handful of girls winning the title “mathematician”—a professional designation that put them on equal footing with entry-level male employees—the fact that most computers were designated as lower-paid “subprofessionals” provided a boost to the laboratory’s bottom line.
But in 1943, the girls were harder to come by. Virginia Tucker, Langley’s head computer, ran laps up and down the East Coast searching for coeds with even a modicum of analytical or mechanical skill, hoping for matriculating college students to fill the hundreds of open positions for computers, scientific aides, model makers, laboratory assistants, and yes, even mathematicians. She conscripted what seemed like entire classes of math graduates from her North Carolina alma mater, the Greensboro College for Women, and hunted at Virginia schools like Sweetbriar in Lynchburg and the State Teachers College in Farmville.
Melvin Butler leaned on the US Civil Service Commission and the War Manpower Commission as hard as he could so that the laboratory might get top priority on the limited pool of qualified applicants. He penned ads for the local newspaper, the Daily Press: “Reduce your household duties! Women who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do jobs previously filled by men should call the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory,” read one notice. Fervent pleas from the personnel department were published in the employee newsletter Air Scoop: “Are there members of your family or others you know who would like to play a part in gaining supremacy of the air? Have you friends of either sex who would like to do important work toward winning and shortening the war?” With men being absorbed into the military services, with women already in demand by eager employers, the labor market was as exhausted as the war workers themselves.
A bright spot presented itself in the form of another man’s problem. A. Philip Randolph, the head of the largest black labor union in the country, demanded that Roosevelt open lucrative war jobs to Negro applicants, threatening in the summer of 1941 to bring one hundred thousand Negroes to the nation’s capital in protest if the president rebuffed his demand. “Who the hell is this guy Randolph?” fumed Joseph Rauh, the president’s aide. Roosevelt blinked.
A “tall courtly black man with Shakespearean diction and the stare of an eagle,” Asa Philip Randolph, close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, headed the 35,000-strong Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The porters waited on passengers in the nation’s segregated trains, daily enduring prejudice and humiliation from whites. Nevertheless, these jobs were coveted in the black community because they provided a measure of economic stability and social standing. Believing that civil rights were inextricably linked to economic rights, Randolph fought tirelessly for the right of Negro Americans to participate fairly in the wealth of the country they had helped build. Twenty years in the future, Randolph would address the multitudes at another March on Washington, then concede the stage to a young, charismatic minister from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr.
Later generations would associate the black freedom movement with King’s name, but in 1941, as the United States oriented every aspect of its society toward war for the second time in less than thirty years, it was Randolph’s long-term vision and the specter of a march that never happened that pried open the door that had been closed like a bank vault since the end of Reconstruction. With two strokes of a pen—Executive Order 8802, ordering the desegregation of the defense industry, and Executive Order 9346, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor the national project of economic inclusion—Roosevelt primed the pump for a new source of labor to come into the tight production process.
Nearly two years after Randolph’s 1941 showdown, as the laboratory’s personnel requests reached the civil service, applications of qualified Negro female candidates began filtering in to the Langley Service Building, presenting themselves for consideration by the laboratory’s personnel staff. No photo advised as to the applicant’s color—that requirement, instituted under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, was struck down as the Roosevelt administration tried to dismantle discrimination in hiring practices. But the applicants’ alma maters tipped their hand: West Virginia State University, Howard, Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal, Hampton Institute just across town—all Negro schools. Nothing in the applications indicated anything less than fitness for the job. If anything, they came with more experience than the white women applicants, with many years of teaching experience on top of math or science degrees.
They would need a separate space, Melvin Butler knew. Then they would have to appoint someone to head the new group, an experienced girl—white, obviously—someone whose disposition suited the sensitivity of the assignment. The Warehouse Building, a brand-new space on the west side of the laboratory, a part of the campus that was still more wilderness than anything resembling a workplace, could be just the thing. His brother Sherwood’s group had already moved there, as had some of the employees in the personnel department. With round-the-clock pressure to test the airplanes queued up in the hangar, engineers would welcome the additional hands. So many of the engineers were Northerners, relatively agnostic on the racial issue but devout when it came to mathematical talent.
Melvin Butler himself hailed from Portsmouth, just across the bay from Hampton. It required no imagination on his part to guess what some of his fellow Virginians might think of the idea of integrating Negro women into Langley’s offices, the “come-heres” (as the Virginians called the newcomers to the state) and their strange ways be damned. There had always been Negro employees in the lab—janitors, cafeteria workers, mechanic’s assistants, groundskeepers. But opening the door to Negroes who would be professional peers, that was something new.
Butler proceeded with discretion: no big announcement in the Daily Press, no fanfare in Air Scoop. But he also proceeded with direction: nothing to herald the arrival of the Negro women to the laboratory, but nothing to derail their arrival either. Maybe Melvin Butler was progressive for his time and place, or maybe he was just a functionary carrying out his duty. Maybe he was both. State law—and Virginia custom—kept him from truly progressive action, but perhaps the promise of a segregated office was just the cover he needed to get the black women in the door, a Trojan horse of segregation opening the door to integration. Whatever his personal feelings on race, one thing was clear: Butler was a Langley man through and through, loyal to the laboratory, to its mission, to its worldview, and to its charge during the war. By nature—and by mandate—he and the rest of the NACA were all about practical solutions.
So, too, was A. Philip Randolph. The leader’s indefatigable activism, unrelenting pressure, and superior organizing skills laid the foundation for what, in the 1960s, would come to be known as the civil rights movement. But there was no way that Randolph, or the men at the laboratory, or anyone else could have predicted that the hiring of a group of black female mathematicians at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory would end at the Moon.
Still shrouded from view were the great aeronautical advances that would crush the notion that faster-than-sound flight was a physical impossibility, the electronic calculating devices that would amplify the power of science and technology to unthinkable dimensions. No one anticipated that millions of wartime women would refuse to leave the American workplace and forever change the meaning of women’s work, or that American Negroes would persist in their demands for full access to the founding ideals of their country and not be moved. The black female mathematicians who walked into Langley in 1943 would find themselves at the intersection of these 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.
There was no escaping the heat in the summer of 1943, not in the roiling seas of the South Pacific, not in the burning skies over Hamburg and Sicily, and not for the group of Negro women working in Camp Pickett’s laundry boiler plant. The temperature and humidity inside the army facility were so intense that slipping outdoors into the 100-plus degrees of the central Virginia June summer invited relief.
The laundry room was both one of the war’s obscure crannies and a microcosm of the war itself, a sophisticated, efficient machine capable of processing eighteen thousand bundles of laundry each week. One group of women loaded soiled laundry into the enormous boilers. Others heaved the sopping clothes into the dryers. Another team worked the pressing machines like cooks at a giant griddle. Thirty-two-year-old Dorothy Vaughan stood at the sorting station, reuniting wayward socks and trousers with the laundry bags of the black and white soldiers who came to Camp Pickett by the trainload for four weeks of basic training before heading on to the Port of Embarkation in Newport News. Small talk of husbands, children, lives back home, or the ever-present war rose above the thunder and hum of the giant laundry boilers and dryers. We gave him a real nice send-off, whole neighborhood turned out. Just as well you can’t get stockings nowhere, hot as it is. That Mr. Randolph sure is something, and friends with Mrs. Roosevelt too! They brooded over the husbands and brothers and fathers heading into the conflict that was so far away from the daily urgencies of their lives in Virginia, yet so close to their prayers and their dreams.
The majority of the women who found their way to the military laundry room had left behind jobs as domestic servants or as stemmers in the tobacco factories. The laundry was a humid inferno, the work as monotonous as it was uncomfortable. Laundry workers existed at the bottom of the war’s great pyramid, invisible and invaluable at the same time. One aircraft industry executive estimated that each laundry worker supported three workers at his plants; with someone else to tend to their dirty clothing, men and women on the production lines had lower rates of absenteeism. The laundry workers earned 40 cents an hour, ranking them among the lowest paid of all war workers, but with few job options available to them, it felt like a windfall.
Only a week had elapsed between the end of the school year at Robert Russa Moton, the Negro high school in Farmville, Virginia, where Dorothy worked as a math teacher, and her first day of work at Camp Pickett. 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.
In the summer of 1943, Dorothy jumped at the chance to head to Camp Pickett and earn extra money during the school break. Though teaching offered prestige, the compensation was modest. Nationally, Virginia’s white teachers ranked in the bottom quarter in public school salaries, and their black counterparts might earn almost 50 percent less. Many black teachers in the South gave lessons in one- or two-room schools that barely qualified as buildings. Teachers were called upon to do whatever was necessary to keep the schoolhouses clean, safe, and comfortable for pupils. They shoveled coal in winters, fixed broken windows, scrubbed dirty floors, and prepared lunch. They reached into their own threadbare purses when the schoolroom kitty fell short.
Another woman in Dorothy’s situation might have seen taking the laundry job as unthinkable, regardless of the economics. Wasn’t the purpose of a college degree to get away from the need to work dirty and difficult jobs? And the location of the camp, thirty miles southeast of Farmville, meant that she lived in worker housing during the week and got back home only on weekends. But the 40 cents an hour Dorothy earned as a laundry sorter bested what she earned as a teacher, and with four children, a summer of extra income would be put to good and immediate use.
And Dorothy was of an unusually independent mind, impatient with the pretensions that sometimes accompanied the upwardly mobile members of the race. She did nothing to draw attention to herself at Camp Pickett, nor did she make any distinctions between herself and the other women. There was something in her bearing that transcended her soft voice and diminutive stature. Her eyes dominated her lovely, caramel-hued face—almond-shaped, wide-set, intense eyes that seemed to see everything. Education topped her list of ideals; it was the surest hedge against a world that would require more of her children than white children, and attempt to give them less in return. The Negro’s ladder to the American dream was missing rungs, with even the most outwardly successful blacks worried that at any moment the forces of discrimination could lay waste to their economic security. Ideals without practical solutions were empty promises. Standing on her feet all day in the sweltering laundry was an opportunity if the tumbled military uniforms bought new school clothes, if each sock made a down payment on her children’s college educations.
At night in the bunk of the workers’ housing, as she willed a breeze to cut through the motionless night air, Dorothy thought of Ann, age eight, Maida, six, Leonard, three, and Kenneth, just eight months old. Their lives and futures informed every decision she made. Like virtually every Negro woman she knew, she struggled to find the balance between spending time with her children at home and spending time for them, for her family, at a job.
Dorothy was born in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her own mother died when Dorothy was just two years old, and less than a year later, her father, Leonard Johnson, a waiter, remarried. Her stepmother, Susie Peeler Johnson, worked as a charwoman at the grand Union Station train depot to help support the family. She took Dorothy as her own daughter and pushed her to succeed, teaching the precocious girl to read before she entered school, which vaulted her ahead two grades. She also encouraged her daughter’s natural musical talent by enrolling her in piano lessons. When Dorothy was eight, the family relocated to Morgantown, West Virginia, where her father accepted a job working for a successful Negro restaurateur. There she attended the Beechhurst School, a consolidated Negro school located around the corner from West Virginia University, the state’s flagship white college. Seven years later, Dorothy reaped the reward for her hard work in the form of the valedictorian’s spot and a full-tuition scholarship to Wilberforce University, the country’s oldest private Negro college, in Xenia, Ohio. The African Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Convention of West Virginia, which underwrote the scholarship, celebrated fifteen-year-old Dorothy in an eight-page pamphlet that it published and distributed to church members, lauding her intelligence, her work ethic, her naturally kind disposition, and her humility. “This is the dawn of a life, a promise held forth. We who have been fortunate enough to guide that genius and help mold it, even for a little while, will look on with interest during the coming years,” wrote Dewey Fox, the organization’s vice president. Dorothy was the kind of young person who filled the Negro race with hope that its future in America would be more propitious than its past.
At Wilberforce, Dorothy earned “splendid grades” and chose math as her major. When she was an upperclassman, one of Dorothy’s professors at Wilberforce recommended her for graduate study in mathematics at Howard University, in what would be the inaugural class for a master’s degree in the subject. Howard, based in Washington, DC, was the summit of Negro scholarship. Elbert Frank Cox and Dudley Weldon Woodard, the first two Negroes to earn doctorates in mathematics, with degrees from Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, ran the department. The white schools’ prejudice was the black schools’ windfall: with almost no possibility of securing a faculty position at a white college, brilliant black scholars like Cox and Woodard and W. E. B. Du Bois, the sociologist and historian who was the first Negro to receive a doctorate from Harvard, taught almost exclusively at Negro schools, bringing students like Dorothy into close contact with some of the finest minds in the world.
Howard University represented a singular opportunity for Dorothy, in line with the AME scholarship committee’s lofty expectations. Possessed of an inner confidence that attributed no shortcoming either to her race or to her gender, Dorothy welcomed the chance to prove herself in a competitive academic arena. But the economic reality that confronted Dorothy when she came out of college made graduate study seem like an irresponsible extravagance. With the onset of the Great Depression, Dorothy’s parents, like a third of all Americans, found steady work hard to come by. An extra income would help keep the household above water and improve the odds that Dorothy’s sister might be able to follow her path to college. Dorothy, though only nineteen years old, felt it was her responsibility to ensure that the family could make its way through the hard times, even though it meant closing the door on her own ambitions, at least for the moment. She opted to earn a degree in education and pursue teaching, the most stable career for a black woman with a college degree.
Through an extensive grapevine, black colleges received calls from schools around the country requesting teachers, then dispatched their alumni to fill open positions in everything from tar paper shacks in the rural cotton belt to Washington, DC’s elite Dunbar High School. New educators hoped to teach in their major subject, of course, but would be expected to assume whatever duties were necessary. After graduation in 1929, Dorothy was sent forth like a secular missionary to join the Negro teaching force.
Her first job, teaching math and English at a Negro school in rural Tamms, Illinois, ended after her first school year. The Depression-fueled collapse in cotton prices hit the area hard, and the school system simply shut its doors, leaving no public education for the rural county’s Negro students. She fared no better in her next posting in coastal North Carolina, where, in the middle of the school year, the school ran out of money and simply stopped paying her. Dorothy supported herself and contributed to the family by working as a waitress at a hotel in Richmond, Virginia, until 1931, when she got word of a job at the school in Farmville.
It was no surprise that the newcomer with the beautiful eyes caught the attention of one of Farmville’s most eligible bachelors. Tall, charismatic, and quick with a smile, Howard Vaughan worked as an itinerant bellman at luxury hotels, going south to Florida in the winter and north to upstate New York and Vermont in the summer. Some years he found work closer to home at the Greenbrier, the luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, which was a destination for wealthy and fabulous people from around the world.
Though her husband’s work kept him on the road, Dorothy exchanged her traveling shoes for Farmville life and the routines of family, the stability of regular work, and community. Still, coming of age and entering the workforce in the depths of the Depression permanently affected Dorothy’s worldview. She dressed plainly and modestly, spurned every extravagance, and never turned down the chance to put money in the bank. Though she was a member of Farmville’s Beulah AME Church, it was the First Baptist Church that enjoyed her esteemed piano playing come Sunday morning, because they had hired her as their pianist.
As the war intensified, the town post office was awash in civil service job bulletins, competing for the eyes of locals and college students alike. It was on a trip to the post office during the spring of 1943 that Dorothy spied the notice for the laundry job at Camp Pickett. But the word on another bulletin also caught her eye: mathematics. A federal agency in Hampton sought women to fill a number of mathematical jobs having to do with airplanes. The bulletin, the handiwork of Melvin Butler and the NACA personnel department, was most certainly meant for the eyes of the white, well-to-do students at the all-female State Teachers College there in Farmville. The laboratory had sent application forms, civil service examination notices, and booklets describing the NACA’s work to the school’s job placement offices, asking faculty and staff to spread the word about the open positions among potential candidates. “This organization is considering a plan to visit certain women’s colleges in this area and interview senior students majoring in mathematics,” the laboratory wrote. “It is expected that outstanding students will be offered positions in this laboratory.” Interviews that year yielded four new Farmville girls for the laboratory’s computing sections.
Dorothy’s house on South Main sat down the street from the college campus. Every morning as she walked the two blocks to her job at Moton High School, a U-shaped building perched on a triangular block at the south end of town, she saw the State Teachers College coeds with their books, disappearing into classrooms in their leafy sanctuary of a campus. Dorothy walked to school on the other side of the street, toeing the invisible line that separated them.
It would no sooner have occurred to her that a place with so baroque a name as the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory would solicit an application from Negro women than that the white women at the college across the street would beckon her through the front doors of their manicured enclave. Black newspapers, however, worked relentlessly to spread the word far and wide about available war jobs and exhorted their readers to apply. Some were dubbing Executive Order 8802 and the Fair Employment Practices Committee “the most significant move on the part of the Government since the Emancipation Proclamation.” Dorothy’s own sister-in-law had moved to Washington to take a job in the War Department.
In the first week of May 1943, the Norfolk Journal and Guide published an article that would call to Dorothy like a signpost for the road not taken. “Paving the Way for Women Engineers,” read the headline. The accompanying photo showed eleven well-dressed Negro women in front of Hampton Institute’s Bemis Laboratory, graduates of Engineering for Women, a war training class. Founded in 1868, Hampton Institute had grown out of the classes held by the free Negro teacher Mary Peake, in the shade of a majestic tree known as the Emancipation Oak. On the eve of World War II, Hampton was one of the leading Negro colleges in the country and the focal point of the black community’s participation in the conflict.
The women had come from points up and down the East Coast, and from right there in town. Pearl Bassette, one of several Hampton natives, was the daughter of a well-known black lawyer, her family tracing its roots back to the early days of the city. Ophelia Taylor, originally from Georgia, graduated from Hampton Institute, and prior to starting the class was running a nursery school. Mary Cherry came from North Carolina, Minnie McGraw from South Carolina, Madelon Glenn from faraway Connecticut. Miriam Mann, a tiny firebrand who had taught school in Georgia, had come to the city with her family when her husband, William, accepted a position as an instructor teaching machine shop at the US Naval Training School at Hampton Institute.
There were black jobs, and there were good black jobs. Sorting in the laundry, making beds in white folks’ houses, stemming in the tobacco plant—those were black jobs. Owning a barbershop or a funeral home, working in the post office, or riding the rails as a Pullman porter— those were good black jobs. Teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer—now those were very good black jobs, bringing stability and the esteem that accompanied formal training.
But the job at the aeronautical laboratory was something new, something so unusual it hadn’t yet entered the collective dreams. Not even the long-stalled plan to equalize Negro teachers’ salaries with those of their white counterparts could beat this opportunity. Even if the war ended in six months or a year, a much higher salary even for that brief time would bring Dorothy that much closer to assuring her children’s future.
So that spring, Dorothy Vaughan carefully filled out and mailed two job applications: one to work at Camp Pickett, where the need for labor was so great, so undifferentiated, that there was virtually no possibility that they would not hire her. The other, much longer application reviewed her qualifications in detail. Work history. Personal references. Schools attended: high school and college. Courses taken, grades received. Languages spoken (French, which she had studied at Wilberforce). Foreign travels (None). Would you be willing to accept a position abroad? (No). Would you be willing to accept a position in Washington, DC? (Yes). How soon could you be ready to start work? She knew the answer before her fingers carved it into the blank: 48 hours, she wrote. I can be ready to go within forty-eight hours.
Past Is Prologue
The 1943 school year at Farmville’s Robert Russa Moton High School started the same way other years always had: same space, more students. The “new” high school, built in 1939 to accommodate 180 students, had been obsolete almost from its beginning. In the school’s first year of operation, 167 students arrived for classes. Four years later, Dorothy Vaughan and her twelve fellow teachers were welcoming 301 education-hungry youngsters, urged along by parents who wanted more for their children than a life of work in the tobacco factories. The students walked for miles to get to the school or took their chances each morning in barely roadworthy buses that made the rounds in the outer reaches of Prince Edward County.
As a member of Moton’s parent-teacher association and a founding board member of the Farmville chapter of the NAACP, Dorothy worked hard to improve the long-term educational prospects of the young people of Farmville. As a teacher, her ambitions were more immediate: with only eight classrooms; no gymnasium, lockers, or cafeteria; and an auditorium outfitted with folding chairs, it took all her leadership and creativity to maintain an orderly learning environment. Somehow, she managed to impart the finer points of arithmetic and algebra in the auditorium, with two other classes taking place simultaneously. The school building might have been modest, but Dorothy’s standards were not. She once discovered an error in one of the math textbooks she used in her classroom and dashed off a letter to the publisher informing them of their mistake (they fixed it, and sent her a thank-you letter in return). The Good Lord himself might have squirmed in his seat if Mrs. Vaughan had caught Him out in her class without having done His algebra homework. She devoted time after the end of the school day to tutoring students who required extra help. She also worked with the school choir; under her direction, several of Moton’s vocal quartets had come away victorious in statewide music competitions. In 1935, a Norfolk Journal and Guide article covering the annual event dubbed her “the festival’s most enthusiastic and hardest working director.”In 1943, she and the school’s music teacher, Altona Johns, put students through their paces in preparation for the year’s Christmas cantata, “The Light Still Shines.”
The feverish summer gave way to fall foliage and brisk mornings, but routines had changed to accommodate the war. The school’s 4-H club made care packages for departing servicemen and hosted a community discussion entitled “What Can We Do to Win the War?” The Moton school office put war stamps on sale, each purchase a small offset against the gargantuan cost of the military production. The community held going-away parties and prepared feasts for the young men heading off to the front. Dorothy updated her classes with a unit called Wartime Mathematics, teaching students to apply arithmetic operations to household budgeting and wartime ration books and updating classic word problems with airplanes instead of cars.
Sometimes, it seemed as if Dorothy had never been without Farmville or Farmville without her. The town had embraced her with the warmth accorded a native daughter; she had called it home longer than any other place she’d lived in in her thirty-two years. Her life, however, was a model of America’s great love affair with mobility, in every sense. In moments of deepest reflection, as she waited for a response to her application for the job in Hampton, Dorothy might have detected the quickening of something beyond the pragmatic hope for economic advancement, the reigniting of restless embers long quiet in the twelve years since she had come to Farmville.
Paper resolve was one thing, the messiness of real life another. She was no longer a single student with an itinerant soul but a wife and mother of four children. The job at Langley was a full-time position and required a six-day workweek at an office too far away to come home on weekends, as she had done during the summer at Camp Pickett. And yet, when the half-forgotten, hoped-for letter finally arrived, she had already made up her mind. Once Dorothy made up her mind, no one—not her husband, not her in-laws, not the principal at Moton—would be able to dissuade her from her goal.
You are hereby appointed Mathematician, Grade P-1, with pay at the rate of $2,000 per annum, for such period of time as your service may be required, but not to extend beyond the duration of the present war and for six months thereafter.
The pay was more than twice the $850 annual salary she earned teaching at Moton.
Dorothy’s farewell was as straightforward and unadorned as the letter that had arrived from the NACA that fall. No party or fanfare marked her departure, just a single line in the Farmville section of the Norfolk Journal and Guide: “Mrs. D. J. Vaughan, instructor in mathematics at the high school for several years, has accepted a position at Langley Field, VA.” Never one for the long good-bye, she lingered over her children in the house on South Main only until the bell rang at the front door. “I’ll be back for Christmas,” Dorothy said, with a final round of embraces. For twelve school years, every morning, she had turned left out the front door to get to work. Now the taxi turned right, spiriting her off in the opposite direction.
The Colored waiting room at the Greyhound bus station served as the checkpoint for an in-between world. Dorothy boarded the bus, and with each passing mile, life in Farmville faded into the distance. The job at Langley, an abstraction for half a year, moved into focus. Dorothy’s previous travels—Missouri to West Virginia, Ohio to Illinois, North Carolina to Virginia—dwarfed the mere 137 miles that separated Farmville from Newport News, where she had managed to secure temporary housing using a list of rooms for rent for colored tenants. Surely she had never traveled a greater emotional distance. In the transitional space of the bus, she turned over the questions that had loitered in her mind since sending off her application six months prior. What would it be like to work with white people? Would she sit side by side with young women like the ones at the State Teachers College? Would she miss the rolling blue hills of Virginia’s Piedmont, or fall in love with the great expanse of the Chesapeake Bay and the many rivers, inlets, and wetlands that embroidered the Virginia coast? How would she endure the time and distance that separated her from her children, the warmth of their embraces still fresh on her skin as the bus gained the road south?
Surrounded by grandparents and dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins, in a community where neighbors counted as family, pitching in when relatives couldn’t, Dorothy’s children’s lives would change very little. Accustomed to their mother’s long workdays and their father’s extended absences, they missed Dorothy, but her departure didn’t interrupt their high-spirited lives replete with family, friends, and school.
It would, however, complicate her marriage with Howard, in which time spent apart was already measured in weeks or months rather than days. Dorothy was twenty-two years old in 1932 when they married, and ready to assume the mantle of traditional family life. Dorothy, who grew up without grandparents, basked in the stability and warmth of the extended Vaughan family, but loving in-laws could provide only so much salve for a missing husband’s companionship. The geographic separation between wife and husband was a proxy for the emotional distance that opened between them as the years progressed, exposing an unevenness that was perhaps present from the beginning of their relationship.
When home from the hotel circuit, Howard’s longings were for the simplicities of small-town life: spending time with family and friends and working in the family’s poolroom. Dorothy, on the other hand, filled every spare hour of her week with activity, from NAACP meetings to piano rehearsals at the church. Howard was satisfied with his high school diploma, but years after she chose teaching over a master’s degree from Howard University, Dorothy had decided to travel to the Virginia State College for Negroes near Richmond, Virginia, once a week for a semester to take an evening extension course in education.
Dorothy, who knew the call of the open road so well, could certainly understand some of the appeal of Howard’s unusual and itinerant career, and she supported it as best she could. In 1942, the entire family accompanied him to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, renting a house in town that was close enough for Howard to walk to his job as a bellman at the Greenbrier. Warned by their parents not to even think about setting foot on the hotel grounds, the Vaughan children got as close as they could to the enormous white-columned resort from the periphery, peering through the shrubbery-covered iron fence from the outside so that they might steal a glance at the German and Japanese detainees interned at a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp on the premises.
Their rented house was across the street from the home of an older Negro couple, Joshua and Joylette Coleman. Joshua and Howard shared bellman duties at the front desk of the Greenbrier. While the men worked, Dorothy and the children passed the day with Joylette, a retired schoolteacher. The Vaughan children came to love the Colemans; it was like having another set of grandparents. Dorothy, who had spent seven years of her youth in West Virginia, told stories of living in the state and listened to the Colemans’ proud tales of their children’s exploits, particularly those of their youngest daughter, Katherine.
Charles, Margaret, Horace, and Katherine Coleman had grown up right there in town. Twenty-four-year-old Katherine lived in Marion, Virginia, a speck of a town in the state’s rural southwest. Until settling down and starting a family, Katherine had also worked as a math teacher. Like Dorothy, Katherine’s intellectual gifts particularly her talent for math had skipped her ahead in school. She graduated from high school at fourteen and enrolled at West Virginia State Institute, a black college located just outside of Charleston, the state capital. By her junior year, Katherine had tackled every math course in the school’s catalog and had been taken under the wing of a gifted young math professor named William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, who created advanced math classes just for her. Claytor, who earned a PhD in math from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933, was only the third Negro in the country to obtain the credential. He had graduated from Howard University in 1929 and took a seat in the school’s inaugural one-year master’s degree program in mathematics—the same offer Dorothy had been unable to accept.
Whether or not Dorothy and Katherine ever realized that the brilliant Claytor was one of their shared connections—Dorothy almost never discussed her Howard admittance—Katherine’s path following her graduation from the college, with a summa cum laude degree in math and French, must have felt to Dorothy like an alternate version of her own story. In 1936, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by Charles Hamilton Houston, successfully argued the Supreme Court case Murray v. Pearson, ending graduate school admission policies that explicitly barred black students. Building on that victory, the organization scored again at the high court with 1938’s Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, requiring states either to provide their black students with separate (but “equal”) graduate and professional school programs or to allow them to integrate the white schools. Some states, like Virginia, simply refused to comply: in 1936, a black student from Richmond named Alice Jackson Houston applied to the University of Virginia to study French, but she was denied admission. The NAACP sued on her behalf, and in response, the state of Virginia set up a tuition reimbursement fund, subsidizing the graduate educations of black students in any place but Virginia, a policy that continued until 1950.
West Virginia, however, decided to integrate. Quietly, quickly, and without protest, three “unusually capable” Negro students began graduate studies at West Virginia University in Morgantown in the summer of 1940. The Colemans’ daughter Katherine was one of them, a testament to both her academic talent and a strength of character that could stand up to the isolation and scrutiny that came along with being a black student on the front lines of desegregation. But a master’s degree in math would elude Katherine just as it had Dorothy. After the summer session, Katherine decided to leave WVU’s graduate program for a life as a full-time wife and mother, the call of domestic life winning out over career ambition.
Katherine’s parents loved their son-in-law, Jimmy, a chemistry teacher whom Katherine met at her first teaching assignment, and they doted on their three granddaughters. Her choice to prioritize family life did nothing to dampen her parents’ pride in her academic achievements. Did she, like Dorothy, ever wonder about where the opportunity might have taken her? Did she imagine what her talent might look like if it were pushed to the limit? Katherine had made her choice only two years earlier. Dorothy’s first big chance was now fifteen years in the past, long enough ago to assume that the die of her life had been irrevocably cast.
And yet 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.
Out the window of the Greyhound bus, the gentle hills of the Piedmont flattened and broadened and the state capital came and went, and as the coastal plain of the Tidewater region advanced toward Dorothy at forty miles per hour, one of the country’s busiest war boomtowns opened its arms to receive its newest resident.
The Double V
Dorothy Vaughan entered the Greyhound bus in one America and disembarked in another, no less anxious, hopeful, and excited than if she were an immigrant arriving from foreign shores. The cluster of cities and hamlets around the harbor of Hampton Roads—Newport News and Hampton to the north, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach to the south—boiled over with in-migrants. The region’s day as a rustic land had retreated against the rolling tide of newcomers. From the forests and fisheries and farmlands of an Arcadian state dawned a powerful military capital, a nerve center that had welcomed residents by the hundreds of thousands since the start of the conflict. Now, the chief business of the people of Hampton Roads was the war.
Whether approached by land or by sea, Newport News, with its vast complex of coal piers and scaffolding, cranes and smoke-belching stacks, rails and elevators and berths laid out on the James River, gave a sense of the great power concentrated in America’s military, the scope of a manufacturing and production machine of nearly inconceivable proportions, the consummation of a military-industrial empire unparalleled in the history of humankind. Stevedores and riggers by the hundreds strained against winches and loaded crates of rations and ammunition into the holds of the warships snugged into their berths. Lines of jeeps drove onto the ships, creating traffic jams on the piers greater than any that had been seen on land. Soldiers forced teams of mules up gangways, K9 dogs boarded vessels with their faithful two-legged companions. Allied troops staged at Camp Patrick Henry, five miles up the military highway, then were delivered by train to the pier. 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.
In the boomtown, much of the work belonged to the women. The sight of coverall-clad women working at filling stations throughout the area became so common they no longer turned heads. Women shined shoes, worked at the shipyard, and staffed the offices at military installations. With men off to the front, womanpower picked up the slack, and local businesses went to extraordinary lengths to recruit and retain female employees. The War Department hired women to pose as mannequins and stand in the windows of Norfolk’s Smith & Welton department store, their task to entice other women to apply for war jobs.
Between 1940 and 1942, the region’s civilian population exploded from 393,000 to 576,000, and that was before accounting for the tenfold increase in military personnel, from 15,000 to more than 150,000. The war operated around the clock—three eight-hour shifts—and businesses sprinted to keep pace. Local commerce was robust—too robust in some cases: a sign reading PLEASE WASH AT HOME awaited customers of a Norfolk Laundromat enjoying too much of a good thing. The Norva Theatre in Norfolk showed movies from 11:00 a.m. to midnight, packing the house with films such as This Is the Army and Casablanca. The flickering images offered escapism and a muscular dose of patriotism. Newsreels before and after the feature crowed about American exploits on the battlefield. Walt Disney even had an entry with an animated feature entitled Victory Through Air Power,extolling the virtues of the flying machine as a weapon of war. Banks, flush with cash, stayed open late to cash checks for workers. Water systems, electrical plants, school systems, and hospitals all struggled to keep pace with the growing population. Newcomers stood three deep in line for hotels, day after day. Landlords doubled their rents and still enjoyed a waiting list.
Nothing, however, quite captured the size, scope, and economic impact of the war on the Hampton Roads area like the federally funded housing development in the East End of Newport News, built to alleviate the critical shortage of homes for war workers. Migrants queued up to rent one of the 5,200 prefabricated demountable homes, 1,200 in Newsome Park, designated for blacks, and 4,000 in physically identical Copeland Park, designed for whites. From Forty-First Street to Fifty-Sixth Street, from Madison Avenue to Chestnut Avenue, the world’s largest defense housing project—two smaller, separate cities within the city—took the edge off the critical housing shortage on the Virginia Peninsula.
Dorothy Vaughan arrived in Newport News on a Thursday and started work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory the following Monday. The personnel department maintained a file of available housing for new employees, carefully segmented by race to “establish congenial connections” and “avoid embarrassment.” Five dollars a week got Dorothy a place to lay her head, two meals a day, and the kind attentions of Frederick and Annie Lucy, a black couple in their sixties. The Lucys owned a grocery store and opened their spacious home, which was located on the periphery of the Newsome Park development, to boarders. A larger version of what Dorothy had left behind, the East End was populated by stable Negro families in well-maintained homes, thriving local businesses, and a growing middle class, many of them shipyard workers whose tenure predated the boom. On the corner of the Lucys’ block, a pharmacist had purchased a lot with plans to open the city’s first Negro pharmacy. There was even a brand-new hospital nearby: Whittaker Memorial opened earlier in 1943, organized by black doctors and constructed by black architects.
With husband and children now far away, her living space shrunk from a spacious house to a single room, her suitcase now her closet, Dorothy’s daily existence was reduced to its simplest elements. The few days of lead time were just enough to scope out the bare essentials of her new life: the location of the nearest AME church, mealtimes at the Lucy home, and transportation to work.
City buses and trolleys circulated from morning till night, swelling with riders before the orange and pink of dawn, as employees punching out from the graveyard shift met early birds just starting their day. Nowhere was the war strain more evident than in the intimate crowds of strangers who pushed up against one another in the vehicles making their rounds. Managing the multitudes in such a limited space would have been difficult under the best of circumstances, but the convoluted Jim Crow transportation laws turned the commute into a gauntlet for all riders. Whites entered and exited from the front of the bus and sat in the white section in the front. Blacks were supposed to enter and exit from a rear door and find space in back, behind the Colored line; they were also supposed to yield seats to white patrons if the white section was full. A shortage of conductors at the rear door meant that most of the time, blacks actually entered through the front door and had to push through a line of white patrons in order to get to the black section. They then jostled back through to the aisle to the front to leave the bus. And if white passengers on one of the few two-man buses found themselves at the back of the bus, they too had to push through to the front, as the law prohibited whites from using the back door. If the segregation laws were designed to reduce friction by keeping the races apart, in practice they had the opposite effect.
Overcrowded buses; a six-day workweek; constant noise and construction; shortages of sugar, coffee, butter, and meat; long lines for everything from the lunch counter to the gas station . . . the pressures of daily life in the boomtowns across the country pushed already touchy racial relations to the breaking point. So far, Hampton Roads had avoided the strife that had befallen Detroit, Mobile, and Los Angeles, where tensions between whites and blacks (and in Los Angeles, between Mexican, Negro, and Filipino zoot-suited youths and the white servicemen who attacked them) boiled over into violent confrontations.
Whereas white residents of the boomtowns might have seen these conflicts as caused by the war, Negroes, long conditioned to racial enmity in close quarters, were weary of the same old battles. Blacks caught sitting in white sections of buses or trolleys, no matter how crowded, were subject to fines. More than a few violators were dragged off city buses, some beaten by police. Members of a ladies’ club called Les Femmes wrote a letter to the bus company complaining of the derogatory treatment their drivers routinely directed at Negro women. A bus driver on a route between Newport News and Hampton denied entry to Negro men in military uniform. Across the country, some equated the uniformed black soldiers with people who had stepped beyond their place, provoking slights and even violence against them.
Negro resistance to this injustice had been a constant ever since the first ship carried enslaved Africans to Old Point Comfort on Hampton’s shores in 1609. The war, however, and the rhetoric that accompanied it created an urgency in the black community to call in the long overdue debt their country owed them. “Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” were entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, Roosevelt said, addressing the American people in his 1941 State of the Union address. He committed the United States to vanquishing the dictators who would deprive others of their freedom. 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?
Executive Order 8802 and the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee brought about an upswell of optimism, with many in the black community hopeful that the gates of opportunity, finally opening, would never close again. But nearly three decades earlier, World War I had also been heralded as the event that would break the back of race prejudice. “With thousands of your sons in the camps and in France, out of this conflict you must expect nothing less than the enjoyment of full citizenship rights—the same as are enjoyed by every other citizen,” President Woodrow Wilson, a native Virginian, vowed to American blacks during the previous conflict. Even then, Negroes were ready to redeem their lives for their long overdue inheritance. But the military forbade them from serving with whites, deeming them mentally deficient for the rigors of combat. Most were attached to labor battalions, as cooks and stevedores, laborers and gravediggers. The few who clawed their way into the ranks of officers still encountered filthy toilets, secondhand uniforms, segregated showers, and disrespect from white soldiers. And a man who survived the dangers of the battlefield courted danger by walking the streets of his hometown in uniform.
Charles Hamilton Houston’s unyielding opposition to America’s institutionalized discrimination came in part from his experiences as a young soldier in France during World War I. The man who would become the NAACP’s top lawyer and the other colored soldiers in his regiment suffered endless abuse at the hands of white officers. Finally back in the United States, Houston and a friend, still in uniform, were returning home on a train when a white man refused to sit next to them in the dining car. “I felt damned glad I had not lost my life fighting for my country,” he remembered in a 1942 column published in the Pittsburgh Courier.
After the Civil War and during the Reconstruction era, the federal government had opened jobs to blacks, providing social mobility particularly for those from educated backgrounds. Civil service reform in the late nineteenth century reduced patronage and corruption and introduced a merit system that allowed blacks to get a foot in the door. During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, however, the iron curtain of segregation fell on federal employment. A 1915 rule requiring a photo with every application made race a silent consideration for the final decision. From agencies as diverse as the Bureau of Engraving, the US Post Office, and the Department of the Navy, Wilson officials conducted a rout, purging the rolls of high-ranking black officials. Those who remained were banished to segregated areas or hidden behind curtains so that white civil servants and visitors to the offices wouldn’t have to see them.
The intransigence of the forces opposed to the Negro’s drive for equality was made almost unbearably plain in a 1943 comment by Mark Etheridge, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who had served as the first head of Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Committee. “There is no power in the world—not even in all the mechanized armies of the earth, Allied and Axis—which would now force the Southern white people to the abandonment of the principle of social segregation,” said Etheridge, a white liberal often vilified for his support of Negro advancement. The system that kept the black race at the bottom of American society was so deeply rooted in the nation’s history that it was impervious to the country’s ideals of equality. Restaurants that refused to serve Dorothy Vaughan had no problem waiting on Germans from the prisoner-of-war camp housed in a detention facility under the James River Bridge in Newport News. The contradiction ripped Negroes asunder, individually and as a people, their American identities in an all-out, permanent war with their black souls, the agony of the double consciousness given voice by W. E. B. Du Bois in his illuminating book The Souls of Black Folk.
The most outspoken members of the community refused to internalize the contradiction, openly equating the foreign racists America was moved to destroy with the American racists it chose to abide. “Every type of brutality perpetrated by the Germans, in the name of race, is visited upon the Negro in our southland as regularly as he receives his daily bread,” said Vernon Johns, the husband of Dorothy Vaughan’s former colleague Altona Trent Johns. The “brilliant scholar-preacher” of Farmville had gained national renown for his eloquent sermons and maverick views on racial progress. His ideas were radical for the time. However, his no-compromise policy on racial slights of any sort would have a direct and indirect influence on the civil rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s.
Black newspapers—unabashedly partisan on issues pertaining to the Negro—refused to censor themselves, despite the federal government’s threat to level sedition charges against them. “Help us to get some of the blessings of democracy here at home first before you jump on the ‘free other peoples’ bandwagon and tell us to go forth and die in a foreign land,” said P. B. Young, the owner of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, in a 1942 editorial. As with all matters that pertained to the Negro’s safety, education, economic mobility, political power, and humanity, the black press put their readers’ mixed feelings about the war on full display.
James Thompson, a twenty-six-year-old cafeteria worker, eloquently articulated the Negro dilemma in a letter he wrote to the Pittsburgh Courier: “Being an American of dark complexion,” wrote Thompson, “these questions flash through my mind: ‘Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?’ . . . ‘Is the kind of America I know worth defending?’ . . . ‘Will colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past?’ These and other questions need answering; I want to know, and I believe every colored American, who is thinking, wants to know.”
What are we fighting for? they asked themselves and each other.
The question echoed off the vaulted ceilings of the auditorium at Hampton Institute’s Ogden Hall. It resounded in the sanctuaries of First Baptist and Queen Street Baptist and Bethel AME and thousands of black churches around the country. It hovered in the air at the King Street United Service Organization (USO) Club, one of many centers designed to keep home-front morale high; even the USO was segregated, with separate clubs for Negroes, whites, and Jews. It dominated the headlines of the Pittsburgh Courier, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, and every other Negro newspaper in the country. The black community posed the question in private and in public, and with every possible inflection: rhetorically, angrily, incredulously, hopefully. What did this war mean for “America’s tenth man,” the one in ten citizens who were part of the country’s largest minority group?
It wasn’t northern agitators who pushed Negroes to question their country, as so many southern whites wanted to believe. It was their own pride, their patriotism, their deep and abiding belief in the possibility of democracy that inspired the Negro people. And why not? Who knew American democracy more intimately than the Negro people? They knew democracy’s every virtue, vice, and shortcoming, its voice and contour, by its profound and persistent absence in their lives. The failure to secure the blessings of democracy was the feature that most defined their existence in America. Every Sunday they made their way to their sanctuaries and fervently prayed to the Lord to send them a sign that democracy would come to them.
When American democracy beckoned them again, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they closed ranks, as they had done in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and every other American war; they geared up to fight, for their country’s future and for their own. The black churches, the black sororities and fraternities, the Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, Les Femmes Sans Souci, the Bachelor-Benedicts, black colleges across the country—they moved with an organization that shadowed the government’s. The Negro press was a signal corps, communicating between leaders and the ground troops, giving the watchword so that the Negro community moved forward in sync with America, but more importantly, as a unified whole. Every action carried the hope for the ultimate victory.
From the fissure of their ever-present double consciousness sprang the idea of the double victory, articulated by James Thompson in his letter to the Pittsburgh Courier: “Let colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory; the first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”
On the first day of December 1943, as the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and Russia concluded a conference in Tehran in which they planned a summer 1944 invasion of France—an operation that would be known to history as D-Day—Dorothy Vaughan stepped behind the Colored line on the Citizens Rapid Transit bus and headed to her first day of work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
On her first day at Langley, Dorothy Vaughan spent the morning in the personnel department filling out the requisite paperwork. Holding up her right hand, she swore the US Civil Service oath of office, confirming her status as an employee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. But it was her employee badge—a blue metal circle dominated by an image of her face, with the winged NACA logo on either side—that sealed her status as a member of the club, the bearer of a token that allowed her free access to the laboratory’s facilities. Entering the waiting Langley shuttle bus, Dorothy Vaughan headed to her final destination in the laboratory’s West Area.
“If the Placement Officer shall see fit to assign thee to a far-off land of desolation, a land of marshes and mosquitoes without number known as the West Area, curse him not. But equip thyself with hip-boots, take heed that thy hospitalization is paid up and go forth on thy safari into the wilderness and be not bitter over thy sad fate,” joked a contributor to the weekly employee newsletter, Air Scoop.
Since its establishment in 1917, the laboratory’s operations had been concentrated on the campus of the Langley Field military base on the bank of Hampton’s Back River. Beginning in the Administration Building, with a single wind tunnel, the lab grew until space limits pushed it to expand to the west onto several large properties tracing their provenance to colonial-era plantations. Some Hamptonites still recalled how the strange folks at the laboratory saved the town from the economic despair of Prohibition. With a disproportionate number of Hampton citizens earning a living from the liquor industry in the early days of the twentieth century, the alcohol drought that was rolling across the country was potentially devastating. The city’s clerk of courts, Harry Holt, working with a cabal including oyster magnate Frank Darling, whose company, J. S. Darling and Son, was the world’s third largest oyster packer, endeavored to clandestinely purchase parcels that were once the homesteads of wealthy Virginians, including George Wythe. Holt consolidated the parcels and sold them to the federal government for the flying field and laboratory. “The future of this favored section of Virginia is made,” crowed the local newspaper. It was the biggest thing to happen to the area since Collis Huntington set up his shipyard in Newport News. Locals were so happy about the “life-giving energy” of federal money that they didn’t even begrudge Holt and his business cronies the tidy profit they made on their real estate speculation.
Construction of the West Area began in earnest in 1939. Now, as Dorothy and the other passengers in the shuttle bus came to the end of the forested back road that connected the two sides of the campus, the view opened onto a bizarre landscape consisting of finished two-story brick buildings and cleared construction sites with half-complete structures reaching up out of what was still mostly a thicket of woods and fields. Towering behind one building was a gigantic three-story-high ribbed-metal pipe, like a caterpillar loosed from the mind of H. G. Wells. This racetrack of air called the Sixteen-Foot High-Speed Tunnel was completed just two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and formed a closed rectangular circuit that stretched three hundred feet wide and one hundred feet deep. Adding to the futuristic aspect of the landscape was the fact that all the buildings on the West Side—indeed, all the laboratory’s buildings and everything on the air base as well—had been painted dark green in 1942 to camouflage them against a possible attack by Axis forces.
The shuttle bus made the West Side rounds, stopping to deposit Dorothy at the front door of an outpost called the Warehouse Building. There was nothing to distinguish the building or its offices from any of the other unremarkable spaces on the laboratory’s register: same narrow windows with a view of the fevered construction taking place outside, same office-bright ceiling lights, same government-issue desks arranged classroom style. Even before she walked through the door that would be her workaday home for the duration, she could hear the music of the calculating machines inside the room: a click every time its minder hit a key to enter a number, a drumbeat in response to an operations key, a full drumroll as the machine ran through a complex calculation; the cumulative effect sounded like the practice room of a military band’s percussion unit. The arrangement played in all the rooms where women were engaged in aeronautical research at its most granular level, from the central computing pool over on the East Side to the smaller groups of computers attached to specific wind tunnels or engineering groups. The only difference between the other rooms at Langley and the one that Dorothy walked into was that the women sitting at the desks, plying the machines for answers to the question what makes things fly, were black.
The white women from the State Teachers College across from Dorothy’s house in Farmville, and their sisters from schools like Sweetbriar and Hollins and the New Jersey College for Women, performed together in the East Area computing pool. In the West Area computing office where Dorothy was beginning work, the members of the calculating machine symphony hailed from the Virginia State College for Negroes, and Arkansas AM&N, and Hampton Institute. This room, set up to accommodate about twenty workers, was nearly full. Miriam Mann, Pearl Bassette, Yvette Brown, Thelma Stiles, and Minnie McGraw filled the first five seats at the end of May. Over the following six months, more graduates of Hampton Institute’s Engineering for Women training class joined the group, as well as women from farther afield, like Lessie Hunter, a graduate of Prairie View University in Texas. Many, like Dorothy, brought years of teaching experience to the position.
Dorothy took a seat as the women greeted her over the din of the calculating machines; she knew without needing to ask that they were all part of the same confederation of black colleges, alumni associations, civic organizations, and churches. Many of them belonged to Greek letter organizations like Delta Sigma Theta or Alpha Kappa Alpha, which Dorothy had joined at Wilberforce. By securing jobs in Langley’s West Computing section, they now had pledged one of the world’s most exclusive sororities. 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 the front of the room, like teachers in a classroom, sat two former East Area Computers: Margery Hannah, West Computing’s section head, and her assistant, Blanche Sponsler. Tall and lanky, with enormous eyes and even bigger glasses, Margery Hannah started working at the lab in 1939 after graduating from Idaho State University, not long after the East Area Computing pool outgrew the office it shared with physicist Pearl Young. Young, hired in 1922, and for the better part of two decades the laboratory’s only female professional, now served as the laboratory’s technical editor (the “English critic,” as she was usually called) and managed a small, mostly female staff responsible for setting the standards for the NACA’s research reports. Virginia Tucker, who had ascended to the position of head computer, ran Langley’s entire computing operation of over two hundred women, and supervised Margery Hannah and the other section heads. The work that came to a particular section usually flowed down from the top of the pyramid: engineers came to Virginia Tucker with computing assignments; she parceled out the tasks to her section heads, who then divided up the work among the girls in their sections. Over time, engineers might bring their computing directly to the section head, or even to a particular girl whose work they liked.
With labor shortages affecting the laboratory’s ability to execute time-sensitive drag cleanup and other tests designed to make military aircraft as powerful, safe, and efficient as possible, the West Computers added much-needed minds to the agency’s escalating research effort. The NACA planned to double the size of Langley’s West Area in the next three years. Mother Langley had even given birth to two new laboratories: the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Moffett Field, California, in 1939, and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1940. Both laboratories siphoned off Langley employees, including computers, for their startup staffs. The agency scrambled to keep up with the production miracle that was the American aircraft industry, which had gone from the country’s forty-third largest industry in 1938 to the world’s number one by 1943.
For most of its existence a small and contained operation, the NACA’s flagship laboratory was now a many-layered bureaucracy flush with new faces. As engineering groups grew in number and complexity, an employee’s daily routine was pegged less to the revolutions of the laboratory as a whole and more to the ebb and flow of their individual work groups. Employees sat elbow to elbow with the same people during their morning coffee, ate lunch in their designated time slot in the cafeteria as a group, and left together to catch the evening shuttle bus. Air Scoop published everything from recaps of presentations by aeronautical notables to the scores from the intramural softball league and the dance schedule for the Noble Order of the Green Cow, the club for the laboratory’s fashionable white social set. The weekly dispatch kept employees abreast of the constant activity and fostered morale, but in a breathless year in which the laboratory staff would come close to doubling, it wasn’t easy for the employees themselves to absorb the full impact of the organization’s unusual mission or the unusual assemblage of people carrying it out.
But just one month before Dorothy’s trip from Farmville, Air Scoop covered Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox’s one-day junket to the laboratory. Fifteen hundred employees filed into the Structures Research Laboratory, a cavernous facility located across a dusty clearing from the Warehouse Building, to hear Knox’s address. He congratulated the NACA for leading all federal agencies in employee purchases of war bonds—larger versions of the war stamps on sale at the Moton school—and lauded them for the research that turned an unreliable prototype of a dive bomber into the “slow but deadly” SBD Dauntless, a decisive force in the navy’s June 1942 victory at the Battle of Midway.
“You men and women working here far from the sound of drums and guns, working in your civilian capacity in accordance with your highly specialized skills, are winning your part of this war: the battle of research,” said Knox. “This war is being fought in the laboratories as well as on the battlefields.”
The employees spread out from one side of the room to the other, from foreground to background, a mass occupying the enormous space like gas filling a hot air balloon. Knox, a dot at the far end of the room, stood at a podium in front of a giant American flag. White men dominated the crowd from front to back, the majority in some permutation of shirtsleeves and ties or jackets and sweaters, a good number in the coveralls of mechanics and laborers. A cluster of grandees in tweeds and armbands identifying them as minders to the secretary and his entourage stood off to the side in the front. Whiz kids of the day—John D. Bird, Francis Rogallo, John Becker, their names already circulated as being among the top in the discipline—smiled from a few rows back. Clustered in the left corner of the room stood twenty or so black men, all wearing work coats and dungarees, a few sharpening their outfits with newsboy caps or brimmed hats. White women were sprinkled throughout the crowd, many in the front row, their knee-length skirts sensibly accessorized with the practical footwear that could stand up to treks across the Langley campus. Flanking John Becker were more female faces—brown faces, peering out from the middle distance. Thelma Stiles smiled, Pearl Bassette’s glasses caught the light of the flash. Tiny Miriam Mann’s head was barely visible over the shoulders of the crowd. Who would have thought that such a mélange of black and white, male and female, blue-collar and white-collar workers, those who worked with their hands and those who worked with numbers, was actually possible? And who would guess that the southern city of Hampton, Virginia, was the place to find it?
After the presentation, the women of West Computing walked over to the cafeteria. Employees who never saw one another, who worked in different groups or buildings, might run into one another in the cafeteria, catch a glimpse of Henry Reid or the NACA’s phlegmatic secretary, John Victory, in town for a visit, or maybe get an earful of salty language from John Stack, who oversaw the wind tunnels involved in high-speed research. Thirty minutes and back to work. Just enough time for a hot lunch and a little conversation.
Most groups sat together out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS. It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion. The janitors, the laborers, the cafeteria workers themselves did not take lunch in the main cafeteria. The women of West Computing were the only black professionals at the laboratory—not exactly excluded, but not quite included either.
In the hierarchy of racial slights, the sign wasn’t unusual or out of the ordinary. It didn’t presage the kind of racial violence that could spring out of nowhere, striking even the most economically secure Negroes like kerosene poured on a smoldering ember. This was the kind of garden-variety segregation that over the years blacks had learned to tolerate, if not to accept, in order to function in their daily lives. But there in the lofty environment of the laboratory, a place that had selected them for their intellectual talents, the sign seemed especially ridiculous and somehow more offensive.
They tried to ignore the sign, push it aside during their lunch hour, pretend it wasn’t there. In the office, the women felt equal. But in the cafeteria, and in the bathrooms designated for colored girls, the signs were a reminder that even within the meritocracy of the US Civil Service, even after Executive Order 8802, some were more equal than others. Even the group’s anodyne title was both descriptive and a little deceptive, allowing the laboratory to comply with the Fair Employment Act—West Computing was simply a functional description on the organizational chart—while simultaneously appeasing the Commonwealth of Virginia’s discriminatory separate-but-equal statutes. The sign in the cafeteria was evidence that the law that paved the way for the West Computers to work at Langley was not allowed to compete with the state laws that kept them in their separate place. The front door to the laboratory was open, but many others remained closed, like Anne Wythe Hall, a dormitory for single white women working at Langley. While Dorothy walked several blocks each morning from the Lucys’ house to the bus, the women at the dormitory enjoyed special bus service. There was nothing they could do about that, or the separate “Colored girls” bathroom. But that sign in the cafeteria . . .
It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take. “There’s my sign for today,” she would say upon entering the cafeteria, spying the placard designating their table in the back of the room. Not even five feet tall, her feet just grazing the floor when she sat down, Miriam Mann had a personality as outsized as she was tiny.
The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment. The ritual played itself out with absurd regularity. The sign, placed by an unseen hand, made the unspoken rules of the cafeteria explicit. When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s.
The signs and their removal were a regular topic of conversation among the women of West Computing, who debated the prudence of the action. As the sign drama played itself out in the Langley cafeteria, an incident that would have national repercussions took place in Gloucester County, just twenty miles away. Irene Morgan worked at the Baltimore-based aircraft manufacturer Glenn L. Martin Company, assigned to the production line of the B-26 Marauder. In the summer of 1944 she came home to Virginia on the Greyhound bus to visit her mother, but was arrested on the return trip to Baltimore for refusing to move to the Colored section. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund took the case and planned to use it to challenge segregation rules on interstate transportation. In 1946, the Supreme Court, in Morgan v. Virginia, held that segregation on interstate buses was illegal. But what hope had the West Computers of making a federal case out of something so banal as a cafeteria sign? More likely, whoever kept the table stocked with signs would just decide that it was time to get rid of the troublemakers. “They are going to fire you over that sign, Miriam,” her husband, William, told her at night over dinner. Negro life in America was a never-ending series of negotiations: when to fight and when to concede. This, Miriam had decided, was one to fight. “Then they’re just going to have to do it,” she would retort.
The Manns lived on Hampton Institute’s campus. Though the student body was predominantly black, the school’s president and much of the faculty were white. Malcolm MacLean, a former administrator from the University of Minnesota, had taken the helm of the school in 1940, and was determined that the school’s fully committed participation in the war effort would be his legacy. As the aeronautical laboratory expanded west to meet the demands of the war, its twin, Langley Field, sought to grow in order to accommodate the Army Air Corps’ booming operation. A Boston philanthropist had deeded to Hampton Institute a former plantation named Shellbanks Farm,which served as an agricultural laboratory for Negro and Indian students at the school. In 1941, MacLean oversaw the sale of the 770-acre propertyto the federal government for use by Langley Field, making it one of the largest air bases in the world.
Under MacLean’s direction, the college also established a US naval training school, effectively turning the campus into an active military base. Military police manned all campus entrances, patrolling the comings and goings of everyone on the grounds. From around the country, more than a thousand black naval recruits were sent to the school to receive instruction in the repair of airplane and boat engines. The graduates then headed off to stateside service at bases like Maryland’s Naval Air Station Patuxent River, ground zero for the navy’s flight test activity. And Hampton was determined to be the leader of all black colleges in providing the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT) programs that had graduated West Computing’s first members. Men and women crowded into Hampton Institute classrooms offering instruction in everything from radio science to chemistry. At a war labor conference that Hampton Institute hosted in 1942, MacLean told attendees that the war could be “the greatest break in history for minority groups.”
Many local whites considered MacLean distastefully progressive, dangerous even, with his strident calls to boost Negro participation in the war. But it was his comfort with racial mixing in social situations that really fanned the flames. In speeches, he urged white colleges to employ Negro professors. He entertained both white and black guests at the president’s residence (called the Mansion House), even allowing them to smoke. He went so far as to dance with a Hampton coed at a campus mixer, scandalizing the local gentry (and scoring points with the Hampton students). He seemed to be a true believer in the need for the Negro to advance in American society, a true champion of the tenets of the Double V.
Henry Reid, the engineer in charge of the Langley laboratory, was anything but a firebrand. An understated electrical engineering graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Reid served as an able ambassador for the Yankee-heavy laboratory, replying to invitations to attend local bridge openings with the same care and promptness he used in corresponding with Orville Wright. He embraced the Hampton and Newport News Kiwanis Club set that MacLean spurned. And yet, in some ways the two men were cut from the same cloth: passionate about their particular fields, pragmatic by nature, come-heres with interests and responsibilities that extended beyond the southern sensibilities and social obligations of the town in which they worked. Almost certainly at some point they found themselves in the same place at the same time, in their hurried efforts to push their respective institutions to keep up with the rhythm of the war. Neither left fingerprints on Langley’s decision to hire black women mathematicians. Keeping a public distance from the matter might have been a strategic decision on the part of both men: if the approval process took place quietly, through the “color-blind” bureaucratic gears of the US Civil Service Commission, there was less chance of derailing an advance that served both their missions. The word about the Colored Computers made the round in the community, naturally, and there were those who saw in their employment evidence that the world was coming to an end. Even among the local gentry who attended concerts and theater at Hampton Institute’s grand concert auditorium, Ogden Hall, there were those who expected to be seated at the front of the hall, apart even from the school’s black faculty and administrators.
Some of Langley’s white employees openly defied southern conventions. Head computer Margery Hannah went out of her way to treat the West Area women as equals, and had even invited some of them to work-related social affairs at her apartment. This was nearly unheard of, and made Marge a pariah as far as some white colleagues were concerned.
One of the most brilliant engineers on the laboratory’s staff took an active interest in standing up to the prejudice he saw around town. Robert “R. T.” Jones, whose theory on triangular delta-shaped airplane wings would revolutionize the discipline, was walking through the streets of Hampton one evening when he came upon a group of Hampton police officers harassing a black man. The cops were on the verge of beating the man up when Jones shouted at them to stop. They left the man alone and allowed him to leave, deciding instead to take Jones into custody. He spent the night in the city hoosegow for his trouble. Another engineer, Arthur Kantrowitz, bailed Jones out the next morning.
Engineers from the northern and western states were probably of mixed minds on the issue of race mixing. While it may have been unthinkable for most to extend their social circles to include black colleagues, within the circumscribed atmosphere of the office, they were cordial, even friendly. They got to know the women by their work, requesting their favorites for projects, open to giving a smart person—black or white, male or female—the chance to work hard and get the numbers right. That pragmatic majority, the West Computers knew, were the ones who had the power to break down the barriers that existed at Langley.
Their facilities might be separate, but as far as the West Computers were concerned, they would prove themselves equal or better, having internalized the Negro theorem of needing to be twice as good to get half as far. They wore their professional clothes like armor. They wielded their work like weapons, warding off the presumption of inferiority because they were Negro or female. They corrected each other’s work and policed their ranks like soldiers against tardiness, sloppy appearance, and the perception of loose morals. They warded off the negative stereotypes that haunted Negroes like shadows, using tough love to protect both the errant individual and the group from her failings. And each time the laboratory passed the collection plate for Uncle Sam, the West Computers reached into their purses as they had when they were teachers, so that West Computing could claim 100 percent participation in the purchase of war bonds.
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. Not that the West Computers were hatching plans to invade a neighboring table; they just wanted dominion over their table in the back corner. 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.
Perhaps the unseen hand and its collaborators had come to the conclusion that the quiet endurance of the West Computers was a force better engaged than antagonized, for if there was one thing the war had required over the last three years, and one thing Negroes had in abundance, it was endurance. Those forecasting a swift and tidy end to the war had been numerous but wrong. The fight slogged on, requiring more people, more money, more planes and technology. Someday the war would end, but it didn’t look to be happening tomorrow. The tide of the war might be turning, but there were many battles ahead to win, and victory would require perseverance.
Not everyone could take the long hours and high stakes of working at Langley, but most of the women in West Computing felt that if they didn’t stand up to the pressure, they’d forfeit their opportunity, and maybe opportunity for the women who would come after them. They had more riding on the jobs at Langley than most. The relationships begun in those early days in West Computing would blossom into friendships that extended throughout the women’s lifetimes and beyond, into the lives of their children. Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, and Kathryn Peddrew were becoming a band of sisters in and out of work, each day bringing them closer to each other and tethering them to the place that was transforming them as they helped to transform it.
Dorothy listened carefully as Marge Hannah took her through the ropes of the job, taking care to note the expectations with the same exacting eye she herself had applied to grading her students at Moton: Accuracy of operations. Skill in the application of techniques and procedures. Accuracy of judgments or decisions. Dependability. Initiative. Even if the job lasted only six months, she was going to make the most of this chance. For an ambitious young mathematical mind—or even one not so young—there wasn’t a better seat in the world.