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Mary Jackson was a mathematician who became the first black, female aerospace engineer with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She began as a “computer,” but a male supervisor encouraged her to pursue the further education needed to become an engineer. She requested a demotion to be the manager of NASA programs dedicated to increasing opportunities for women and minorities at NASA. Jackson’s life is depicted in the book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race and the 2016 film of the same name along with her fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson.

Youth and Education

Mary Jackson was born Mary Winston in Hampton, Virginia on April 9, 1921, to parents Frank C. Winston and Ella Scott. She had one sister, Ella Strothers.[1][2] Winston grew up in Hampton and attended George P. Phenix Training School, an all-black, local high school. She graduated with highest honors after serving as the president of the school’s first National Honor Society chapter during her senior year.

Winston enrolled at Hampton Institute to pursue university studies in physical sciences and mathematics.[3] She joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and graduated in 1942 with a Bachelors in both.[4][5] Winston 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.[6]

Career Beginnings

Mary Jackson worked with Dorothy Vaughan before both women found their place at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Mary Winston first worked as a math teacher at a segregated school for African-Americans in Calvert County, Maryland. She tutored high school and university students at the same time and continued to do so for the rest of her life.[7] As World War II broke out, her hometown of Hampton became a defense research hub in the U.S.

Winston returned to Hampton in 1943 and found a job serving the black community through the King Street USO Club as a receptionist.[8] She married Levi Jackson, Sr., around this time and they produced two children, Levi Jackson, Jr., and Carolyn Marie Lewis.[9] Mary Jackson also worked as a bookkeeper in the Health Department in the Hampton Institute and, right after the birth of Levi, Jr., she served as a secretary for the U.S. Army at Fort Monroe. At Fort Monroe, Jackson first worked with Dorothy Vaughan.[10]

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory

In 1951, Mary Jackson began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She started as a “computer,” or research mathematician, at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the all-black West Computing Section under the recently promoted supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan.

Jackson relocated in 1953 to the Compressibility Research Division within the laboratory. She worked with Kazimierz Czarnecki, an engineer researching in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. The wind tunnel was 4’x4’ (1.2mx1.2m) and used 60,000 watts of horsepower (45,000kW) to investigate the consequences of bombarding an object with wind at almost two times the speed of sound. Czarnecki recognized Jackson’s talents and encouraged her participation and learning while they conducted experiments in the laboratory.[11]

Czarnecki suggested to Jackson that she pursue the avenues to become an engineer with NACA. She required further academic training to make the transition. The University of Virginia offered graduate-level physics and mathematics night/afternoon classes through the all-white Hampton High School. Jackson petitioned the city for special permission to attend the classes in the segregated school. They approved her request and she successfully completed the courses.[12]

NASA’s First Black, Female Engineer

Mary Jackson became NASA's first black, female engineer in 1958 with the encouragement of her white, male supervisor, Kazimierz Czarnecki.

In 1958, Mary Jackson officially became NASA’s first ever black, female engineer. She also co-authored her first scientific paper entitled Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.[13] Jackson eventually authored more than a dozen technical papers with most concentrating on how the boundary layer of air encircling an aircraft behaves.

Jackson worked in several divisions within NACA/NASA over almost 35 years, including the High-Speed Aerodynamics Division, the Full-Scale Research Division, and the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division. While working within NASA, Jackson supported other women and minorities to succeed within a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) career. She even coached some of her coworkers on how to qualify and then ask for promotions.[14]

Later Lif and Career

Mary Jackson realized in 1979 that she would never achieve a management position within NASA due to the inherent gender biases. She decided to leave her position at NASA after 34 years and took a demotion to work as the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s Women’s Program Manager. She spent the rest of her professional career working to promote the next generation of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians at NASA.

Jackson did this through the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and as the manager of the Affirmative Action Program. In 1985, she retired from all her position at NASA.[15] Jackson worked for the Girl Scouts of America throughout her career and served on a variety of STEM committees and organization boards.[16]

Death and Honors

Mary Jackson died of natural causes in the Riverside Convalescent Home in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia, on February 11, 2005. Her funeral was held and her body buried at Bethel AME Church.[17] The book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, showcases Mary Jackson’s life story along with the similarly named 2016 film based off the book. Jackson’s character is played by actress Janelle Monáe.[18]

Jackson won many awards during her professional career, which include: the Apollo Group Achievement Award in 1969, the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Service to the Community, the Langley Research Center Outstanding Volunteer Award in 1975, the Iota Lambda Sorority Award for the Peninsula Outstanding Woman Scientist in 1976, the National Technical Association's Tribute Award also in 1976, and the Langley Research Center Certificate of Appreciation. In August 1977, Ebony magazine also featured her in a special issue titled, “The Black Woman.”[19]

References

Bibliography

Daily Press. (2005, February 16). Mary Winston Jackson. Legacy.[2]


Jackson, M. W. (1979, October). NASA Federal Women’s Program Coordinator. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.[3]

Momodu, S. (2017). Jackson, Mary Winston (1921–2005). The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.[4]


Shetterly, M. L. (2016, November 22). Mary Jackson Biography. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.[5]

Footnotes

  1. Shetterly, 2016
  2. Daily Press, 2005
  3. Jackson, 1979
  4. Daily Press, 2005
  5. Jackson, 1979
  6. Jackson, 1979
  7. Shetterly, 2016
  8. Shetterly, 2016
  9. Momodu, 2017
  10. Shetterly, 2016
  11. Momodu, 2017
  12. Shetterly, 2016
  13. Shetterly, 2016
  14. Momodu, 2017
  15. Shetterly, 2016
  16. Daily Press, 2005
  17. Daily Press, 2005
  18. IMDB. (2016). Hidden Figures - Cast. International Movie Database.[1]
  19. Jackson, 1979

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