hidden figures – Dorothy J. Vaughan … wife, mom and NASA manager


Full Name: Dorothy Johnson Vaughan

 Birthdate: September 20, 1910
 Birthplace: Kansas City, MO
 Education: BA, Mathematics, Wilberforce University 1929
 Center: Langley Research Center

Work Dates: 1943 – 1971

Position(s): Computer; Section Head, West Area Computers; Mathematician, ACD

Group(s): West Computers; ACD

Specialties: Flight paths; Scout Project; FORTRAN programming

Biography:

In an era when NASA is led by an African American man (Administrator Charles Bolden) and a woman (Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), when recent NASA Center Directors come from a variety of backgrounds, it’s easy to overlook the people who paved the way for the agency’s current robust and diverse workforce and leadership. Those who speak of NASA’s pioneers rarely mention the name Dorothy Vaughan, but as the head of the NACA’s segregated West Area Computing Unit, Vaughan was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager.

Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Two years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law, prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the laboratory began hiring black women to meet the skyrocketing demand for processing aeronautical research data. Urgency and twenty-four hour shifts prevailed– as did Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.

The group’s original section heads (first Margery Hannah, then Blanche Sponsler) were white. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors (see also Virginia Tucker). The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare centerwide visibility, and she collaborated with other well-known computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing, and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that she personally handle the work.

Dorothy Vaughan helmed West Computing for nearly a decade. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Dorothy Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and she also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alumni, including Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Eunice Smith and Kathryn Peddrew, and the achievements of second-generation mathematicians and engineers such as Christine Darden.

Katherine Johnson … an Inspiration ~Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director of the NMAAHC


AN INSPIRATION TO ALL OF US
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Katherine Johnson, Hampton, Virginia
Collection of the Smithsonian National
Museum of African American History
& Culture, Gift of Annie Leibovitz,
© Annie Leibovitz

March is Women’s History Month. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture is putting a special focus on the stories of remarkable African American women who overcame the twin barriers of racism and sexism to make their mark on our nation’s history.

Three of the notable women we’re celebrating this month are Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, NASA scientists who — as they toiled in relative obscurity and battled discrimination — helped to ensure the safety of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts, and the success of John Glenn’s historic Friendship 7 mission in 1962. Their amazing story is recounted in the hit film Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by African American author Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father was also a NASA scientist.

Shortly before Hidden Figures opened in theaters, the producers chose our Museum for a special, private screening of the film. In attendance that evening were Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe — who portrayed Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson, respectively — in addition to costar Kevin Costner, director Ted Melfi and musical superstar Pharrell Williams, who produced the movie. The event also featured remarks from former NASA Administrator Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., as well as the unveiling of a portrait of Katherine Johnson by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. That portrait is now part of the Museum’s collection.

With the opening of Museum, trailblazing African American women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are finally receiving the recognition they so richly deserve — inspiring girls and young women everywhere to pursue their dreams. And as a supporter, you can take pride in knowing that you help bring the stories of these African American heroes — and many more — out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Thank you for helping the National Museum of African American History and Culture elevate the African American experience to its rightful place at the center of our nation’s story!

dd-sustainerlanding-2014-lonnie-bunch.jpg All the best,
DD YE year end 1 signature
Lonnie G. Bunch III
Founding Director