Today we are talking about a gal who was the first Black supervisor at what would become NASA, we’re talking about gal who taught herself a computer language that only a handful of people even knew existed. She was a mathematician, a teacher, and a Hidden Figure. Today we’re talking about the life and legacy of your gal, Dorothy Vaughan.
Learn about Dorothy in 2 minutes.
Full Episode on YouTube
Dorothy Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 20, 1910. Her birth name was Dorothy Johnson, and her parents were Leonard and Anne Johnson. Her mother died when she was two-years old and her father remarried to Susie Peeler who raised Dorothy as her own child. Susie saw how bright Dorothy was and taught her how to read before she even attended school, putting her ahead a full two grades. Even as a child her gifting was apparent. She was also musically talented and Susie enrolled her in piano lessons. When Dorothy was eight-years old, her family moved to Morgantown, West Virginia were her father became the first successful Black man to own a restaurant.
Dorothy continued to advance in her schooling and it showed, she graduated from Beechurst High School at only 14-years old. After she graduated at such a young age, Wilberforce University, a private college for African-Americans in Ohio, offered her a full scholarship. Dorothy accepted the scholarship and majored in mathematics. Again, she excelled in her studies. One of her professors recommended her for Howard University’s new mathematics Master’s program. However, as she graduated, the Great Depression hit the U.S and everyone including her parents struggled to find work.
Dorothy chose to stay and get a second degree in education and find a steady job as a teacher. At the time, being a teacher was the most steady job she could hope to find. She was only 19, but still felt the responsibility to help her family and help her sister go to college too. Even with a teaching degree it was a struggle. She started teaching at an all Black school but after a while they simply shut their doors. She started work at another school but eventually the school ran out of money and stopped paying her.
Her next job was waitressing at a hotel where she heard about a teaching position in Farmville. Dorothy moved to Farmville and started teaching. There she met Howard S. Vaughan, Jr and they married in 1932. The couple had six children and Dorothy continued to teach while raising her children and helping to support her family.
In 1943 Dorothy would join NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It would later become NASA. NACA was a federal agency to study and improve airplanes it began in 1915. President Woodrow Wilson was worried about our eventual involvement in World War 1 and wanted our planes to be as top notch as possible.
When the U.S. decided to enter World War 2 in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 & 9346 which desegregated the defense industry and opening hiring to Black Americans. Once again a president in war time thought it would be our air battles that would make a difference in war time.
Because of this executive order NACA started hiring. Many of our able boys were serving, so it was crucial to hire women.
Before Dorothy got to NACA there was a section of women computers, they started about 10 years earlier. Even though the executive order desegregated and hiring was open to all, NACA was on Langley Air Force in Virginia… and Virginia was still segregated. So the West Area was created and hiring begin.
Dorothy spotted two hiring notices at the post office in 1943, one was for a laundry job that paid more than her teaching job but one she could do part-time. The other bulletin was for mathematics in aeronautics laboratory. She applied for both. She got both but one would change her future forever.
Dorothy was hired as a Mathematician, Grade P-1 later that year. It was listed clearly as temporary job for the duration of the war. It would turn into a 28-year career. Her first job was calculating and re-checking math from any of the NACA divisions. The work was six days a week, calculating by hand or machine, and typing up in reports on typewriters. They also took crash-courses learning engineering, physics, and aerodynamics that all took place after work hours.
Dorothy would actually become besties with two other gals in the early days, Miriam Mann and Kathryn Peddrew. Miriam was a small but feisty gal, she didn’t like that there was a cardboard sign in the cafeteria that read “Colored Computers” so she took it upon herself to put the sign in her purse. The sign would return some weeks or months later and she’s do it again, until it never came back.
Margery Hannah, a white woman, was the head of the West Area Computers when Dorothy arrived. Margery treated the women as equals including inviting some gals to get-togethers at her home. She was rare and sometimes misunderstood by her white male co-workers, but after time and the hard work of the gals of the West Area Computers attitudes shifted to a common goal beyond color lines.
First Black Supervisor at NACA
After the war, Margery left the West Area to join the Full-Scale Research Division, her assistant Blanche Sponsler, also a white woman, moved up. Dorothy was named as Blanche’s assistant.
Then it got weird.
Blanche would get sick and leave Dorothy in command. Blanche would be gone for weeks or months at a time but always come back. This happened for years. In 1949 Blanche came back but it was then clear she was struggling with mental illness, she was hospitalized and died a few months later.
It took 6 weeks from Blanche’s last day for Dorothy Vaughan to be “unofficially” named the Lead of West Computing. An African-American woman never held that position previously and it took her new supervisor, Rufus House, two years to make her the official head in January 1951. Dorothy Vaughan did the work of the head of the West Computers from 1947-1951 without the official title. Once she got the title she was NACA’s first Black Supervisor. This was the highest management position any gal could reach at NACA at the time.
During Dorothy’s tenure as supervisor, she worked tirelessly to support and promote both black and white women within the laboratory. She worked closely with respected, white mathematicians on many different projects.
Dorothy 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. She was very observant of her surroundings. She deciphered what needed done and saw the capabilities in the women around her who were able to do the work. Because of how good she was at this, 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.
When Russia launched Sputnik 1 in 1957 everything changed. NACA was trying to do the same but was failing. Once again the US president, this time Eisenhower, was worried about Russia’s military capabilities because as the movie sums up nicely, “if they can launch a rocket in space, bombs will follow.” Nine months after Sputnik, NASA was created with the mission to have the U.S. be the leader in the space age.
NACA to NASA meant a change from a Military operation to a civilian one. Slowly segregation ended. Just like the cardboard sign that Miriam Mann would take at lunch, one day colored sections were labeled and one day they weren’t. Soon there wouldn’t be a West Area Computers.
Computers from IBM started arriving. First was a 704 that was known as “electronic calculator.” Then the big dog of the IBM 7090 arrived.
Dorothy noticed that with the new physical computers there would be less of a need for women computers, regardless of color. Women like Kathryn Johnson and Mary Jackson, did transfer to other departments within NASA. The computer pool was deep with talent and the more talent you had, the less you stayed in the computer pool. But many women were still looking for work and the IBM was starting to take their jobs away.
Perhaps for job security, perhaps because it was a chance to move up in NASA, Dorothy decided to teach herself the computer language of FORTRAN because even though these super computers could do great things, few people knew how to get it working and keep it working. She not only learned it but she helped write the handbook detailing the equation methods used by the computers.
Dorothy saw an opportunity for upward movement for the women computers, black and white. In 1961 Dorothy officially moved to the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) where it was men and women, black and white working together programing computers.
Dorothy pursued interests outside of mathematics like joining the Phyllis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Organization’s group, the Silver Bells. Dorothy was a member of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia, for more than 50 years. She served the church in several leadership roles including, not surprisingly, its finance chair.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, former pastor at Carver Memorial called Dorothy, “a true space heroine, but one of the people you rarely hear about.” He spoke of her humility, saying he had been the pastor at Carver Memorial for three years before he ever heard about her early work at NASA. “She’s been a wonderful Presbyterian, [and she] served in all kinds of capacities at the church when I was there,” he added. She participated in music and singing, bringing her back to her roots, and she also worked on missionary activities in the church as well. Funny enough she also wrote a song called “Math Math.”
Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971 at the age of 60. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alumni.
Dorothy lived to be 98 years old. She died of natural causes on Nov 10, 2008. She had 6 children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
More of Dorothy’s legacy in the podcast episode. Listen Now.
- 2/16 Katherine Johnson
- 2/23 Mary Jackson
- 3/2 Epilogue – Real Life Gals of Hidden Figures
- 3/9 Prelude – Real Life Gals of Hamilton
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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast about female leaders, innovators and rule breakers. Your hosts, Dr. Leah Leach & Ms. Phoebe Frear, talk about the life and legacy about a gal as well as what they have learned from her.