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Mary Jackson – Your Gal Friday

Today we are talking about a gal who is a mathematician, a hidden figure and the first Black engineer at NASA. Her later work at Langley created opportunities for more women at NASA. Today we are talking about the life and legacy of your gal, Mary Jackson.

Learn about Mary in 2 minutes

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Full Episode on YouTube

Early Life

Mary Jackson was born as Mary Winston on April 9, 1921. Her father was Frank C. Winston and her mother was Ella Scott. She grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she graduated from George P. Phenix. She graduated with highest honors after serving as the president of the school’s first National Honor Society chapter during her senior year.

Mary enrolled at Hampton Institute to pursue university studies in physical sciences and mathematics. She joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and graduated in 1942 with a Bachelors in both. Mary then enrolled at the University of Virginia’s Hampton Center to continue her education. She also started a Masters in Public Administration program at Golden Gate University.

Before NASA

After graduation Mary taught math for one year at Black high school in Maryland. She came back to Hampton to take care of her father who was sick. She couldn’t teach in Hampton because two of her sisters were employed as teachers and there were Nepotism laws so she got a job as a secretary and bookkeeper for King Street USO.

The United Service Organization is a charitable organization chartered by Congress that offers programs and services to our service members, military and civilian. USO clubs are found on most military bases including the one in Hampton on Langley Air Force Base. Mary didn’t just stick to balancing and organizing financial accounts. Running the front desk, Mary helped service members find places to live, organized dances, rallies and the Girl Scout Troop. She known as the gal who got things done with wonderful energy.

Her “sharing is caring” spirit was admired by Levi Jackson and after fine romance they married in 1944.

When the war ended, King Street USO was closed and Mary looked for a new job, she worked as a bookkeeper for the Hampton Institute’s Health Service but left when her son, Levi Jr was born. She became stay-at-home mom and leader of Bethal AME’s Girl Scout Troop No. 11.

In the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly she writes, “Mary became a combination of teacher, big sister and fairy godmother, helping her girls with algebra homework, sewing dressing for their proms, and steering them toward college.”

When her son turned four, she applied for two jobs at Langley. One was a clerical position, one was as a computer. She got the clerical job first but three months later she was hired as a computer. 

First Years at NACA

In 1951, Mary Jackson began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA. She started as a computer, or research mathematician in the all-Black West Computing Section at the Langley. Mary reported to the new supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan.

After two years in the West Computing Pool, Dorothy sent Mary to the East Side. Unlike the movie Hidden Figures, it was Mary who struggled with the segregated bathrooms. Finding her way around East Side when nature called, she asked the white women to direct her to the bathroom. They laughed at her. Margot writes, “How would they know how to find her bathroom.” At the end of the day she was still upset and humiliated when she ran into Kazimierz Czarnecki and they both let off steam about their day’s frustrations. Kaz asked, “Why don’t you come work for me?” 

In 1953 she accepted an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. The wind tunnel used to study forces on a model by generating winds at almost twice the speed of sound.

Kaz encouraged Mary to undergo training so that she could be promoted to an engineer. Her goal was to understand air flow, including thrust and drag forces, in order to improve planes. 

Becoming an engineer

From the film Hidden Figures:

Karl Zielinski: Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?

Mary Jackson: I wouldn’t have to, I’d already be one.

Four years before earning the title of engineer, there was a landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Education that banned all segregation in public schools in the United States. Mary’s home of Virginia, however, was slow on this inclusion.

When it came to schools that NACA used for employee’s extended education and training the schools and programs with welcomed Black NACA employees were; Hampton Institute, George Washington University classes at Hampton Institute, College of William and Mary, and Newport News High School had night classes.

But Hampton High School offered University of Virginia’s extension classes  – and was a major staple of NACA  –  did not allow Blacks to attend. Mary had to petition the city of Hampton for “special permission” to attend the whites-only school. She faced the school board and was given a permit for her to attend.

She assumed the whites-only school was some kind of a wonderland with state of the art facilities instead she entered a rundown old building. It was a shock. It was a realization that the “grass isn’t always greener” and that racial prejudice was absurd.

Mary finished her classes, became an engineer-in-training and got her official engineer title in 1958.  

Mary Jackson bottom right image credit Beverly Golemba
Credit: Beverly Golemba (Mary Jackson pictured bottom right)

Apollo Missions

During the Apollo phases of  NASA, Mary was in the 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel testing capsules, make sure they were safe and ready for supersonic speeds. Her focus was on research on how bolts, rivets or grooves in an aircraft would affect air speeds, drag and turbulence. She had authored 12 papers on the subject. One of her early papers can be found here.

There were tragic moments for all of NASA like the 1967 electrical fire that killed 3 astronauts of Mercury 7, and then there were the celebrations, none bigger, than Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in 1969.

But in the 1970’s Langley announced it was laying off people and cancelling it’s supersonic transport program. The was a war in Vietnam and social unrest in the streets. But Mary stayed in the tunnels even though names changed. Mary even took FORTRAN classes worried the computer software would replace the wind tunnels like it did the computer pool.

New Mission

Mary’s work in the 4-foot tunnel was changing.  In 1977 the wind tunnel changed to nitrogen and Kaz retired. Mary took stock.

She was 58 and pretty much at the top of where a female engineer could achieve, so when a new position for a Federal Women’s Program Manager – which was demotion from her current level but a position was to push for the advancement of all women at the center –  it was not a easy decision.

Margot writes, “accepting the position as the Federal Women’s Program Manager was a way of uniting 28 years of work at Langley with a lifetime commitment to equality for all.”

Mary would work on that program taking on training to become and Equality Opportunity Specialist and Affirmative Action Program Specialist. She highlight and created opportunities for women and minorities. She helped a lot of people reach for the stars.

Last Years

Mary would retire from NASA in 1985. She continued volunteering and took on a new role of being a grandma.

Mary passed on peacefully in 2005, she was 83 years old. Her friend and co-worker Gloria Champine said in her eulogy of Mary, “She was a role model of the highest character.”  

More on Mary’s personal life and legacy in the podcast episode. Listen here.

YGF Season 2 Memes (1)

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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.

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