Racial segregation and oppression are likely some of the first things that come to mind when one thinks about the southeastern United States in the early and mid-20th century. Lest we forget the legacy of Jim Crow laws and the cultural environment of white supremacy, it’s an established, albeit not an exclusive, narrative. That does not mean, however, that there are not other stories of the U.S. South.
One such story came to light with the release of the 2016 book Hidden Figures and the film of the same name. It’s the story of Black women who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the South—specifically, in Hampton, Virginia. At the time, computers were not machines, but people who performed complex mathematical computations with slide rules and graph paper. “The engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do the work more rapidly and accurately than they could.”
Under the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was the United States’ first civilian aeronautical research hub. In 1935, five white women created Langley’s first computer pool. What was meant to be temporary became an institution. Working as a computer allowed women to enter aeronautical research when there were few entry points; very few were hired as engineers. Options for women with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields were few; many, if not most of them worked as teachers.
In the 1940s, NACA began hiring Black women as computers, and they became the West Area Computers (also known as the West Computers or Colored Computers). But this was no progressive fairytale. Though computers were paid far more than most jobs available to women at the time, they were paid less than men with similar qualifications. To add further insult, the women were classified as “subprofessionals,” while men were termed “professionals.”
Black computers did the same work but faced even more obstacles than their white counterparts. Langley was initially a racially segregated facility as was policy across much of the South because of Jim Crow laws and in federal buildings since U.S. President Woodrow Wilson came to office in 1913. Not only were the offices segregated, but the dining and bathroom facilities also were. Black computers also faced additional barriers to their professional jobs, often fighting for raises and recognition. One former Black computer said she was hired to work in Langley’s chemistry division but was reassigned to the West Computers because of her race.
The West Area Computers endured the racism of a segregated workplace and the casual sexism apparent when these grown, professional women are referred to with terms like “girl.” Nevertheless, they persisted, demanding equity and recognition. They actively fought back in ways both big and small.
One of the earliest Black computers, Miriam Mann, sometimes removed the segregated seating sign in the cafeteria. Katherine Johnson simply refused to use the “colored girls” bathrooms and did not sit at the segregated section of the cafeteria. Instead, she ate at her desk or at Black-owned restaurants.
Two years after starting in the West Area Computing Unit in 1951, Mary Jackson took another position researching supersonic flight as a mathematician. She received special permission to take engineering classes at a white facility, becoming NASA’s first Black engineer in 1958.
When the United States entered World War II, it prompted the hiring of more computers, Black and white, and the expansion of Langley, overall. Professional opportunities for Black computers would change again after the end of World War II during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The rival nations were fighting to win influence over neutral nations, many of which were populated and led by those of African, Latinx, and Asian descent. The United States promoted itself, and its system, as morally superior to the Soviet Union and its system. The Soviet Union, justifiably, criticized the United States as hypocritical for making this claim while actively oppressing its Black and brown populations.
Losing the cold war was not an option for U.S. leadership. But the world was watching how the United States treated its people. Newspapers worldwide covered the September 1957 standoff at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus deployed the National Guard to keep nine black students from entering. Much of the coverage noted how the talk of equality the United States advocated for differed from what the country demonstrated at home.
A final external impetus for change at Langley was the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. The next year, Langley officially desegregated when NACA became NASA, though integration had already started at the facility.
Johnson’s story eventually became the most recognized example of that eventual change. Johnson, whose career story was told in the 2016 book and then movie Hidden Figures, was hired as a computer in 1953, but she only spent a few weeks at the West Computers office. She got an engineering position as an aerospace technologist. In 1958, she left the Flight Research Division for the Space Task Force where she calculated trajectories for the pioneering spaceflights of Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Glenn personally requested Johnson perform the calculations for his flight, the first orbital flight in U.S. history. “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he said, referring to Johnson.
While this is the story of extraordinary people, it’s more accurate to say it’s the story of extraordinary people taking opportunities they and their predecessors had been previously denied. The reason Blacks were able to be hired as computers was because of an executive order banning racial discrimination in hiring for federal work. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941 to stop Black civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph from organizing a march on Washington, D.C., to protest racial discrimination.
Many of the West Area Computers also took steps to help themselves and others coming along after them. In 1943, Dorothy Vaughan left her job as a high school math teacher to join the West Area Computing Unit. Six years later, she became the first Black woman to supervise her fellow West Area computers. Jackson joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program in 1979. In that role, she worked to hire and promote women engineers, scientists, and mathematicians to NASA.
Jonson’s rise was representative of the increasing frequency of Black computers becoming engineers through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Among the last of these women was Christine Darden. She was hired as a computer in 1967. She, however, wanted to be an engineer. Darden eventually became a mechanical engineer and an expert in supersonic flight and sonic booms. She also became the first Black woman at Langley to be promoted to the senior executive service.
Hampton’s West Area Computers were pioneers in mathematics and engineering. They fought against sexism and racism to chart some of the United States’ most historic scientific and engineering achievements. They made the way for the generations of Black women in STEM careers who would follow.
The story of NASA’s West Area Computers is just one of Hampton, Virginia’s Black community. This place has a long and storied history in the Black community of the United States, which experienced the range of the nation’s racial history, from tragedy to triumph. In 1619, Old Point Comfort became the first place in North America where the English took bound Africans in 1619. Starting at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, that same place (then a U.S. military base known as Fort Monroe) became a place where some local Blacks escaped their enslavement. This U.S.-controlled sanctuary existed in the heart of the Confederacy, which broke away from the United States to ensure the continuation of slavery.
Beneath an oak tree just 3.7 kilometers northwest (2.3 miles) of Old Point Comfort, significant numbers of Black Virginians were educated for the first time during the war. Educating Blacks in Virginia, like many other Southern states, was illegal during and before the U.S. Civil War. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln issued to end slavery in the states that were rebelling, was read publicly for the first time in the South. The Emancipation Oak would later become a part of the campus of Hampton University, an institute of higher learning established to educate Blacks.