Three Black Women Who Led The Way for Black Females in Science WORLD OF SCIENCE


With Kofo Babalola

It takes courage to look beyond the divisions that harbour restrictions in our societies. It is easier to stay in a position that doesn’t create disturbances to our societal norms. In the past, we hear of stories of the segregation between the black man and the white.

We often don’t realise that there were more victories in that era than downfalls we often remember not to forget. One in particular was a real time story of three black women that did their part in the space industry. They broke boundaries and sought-after things that were not easily granted to them because of the colour of their skin.

A historical moment that should have been celebrated during the time that it happened, is now setting the tempo for young black females like me to envision themselves in high-ranking positions in the field of science. They were pioneers of a movement that is inspiring young black girls to take up a career in the field of science.

This movement is still taking place several years down the line from the times that these barriers were broken. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were amongst many others that worked as ‘computers’ in the Langley Memorial Aeronautical laboratory. They handled the mathematical calculations of the many activities that took place in space during their times. Katherine who stood out from the rest, with a highly cerebral mathematical brain, joined the Space Task Force that worked on getting Astronaut John Glenn into space and back safely.

The calculations that needed to be made to cause Glenn to orbit Earth needed the expertise of a smarter brain than a human. This was when computers were introduced to facilitate a faster and more effective way of calculating however, Johnson was still called to double-check the work done by the machine.
There was a slight uncertainty on the accuracy of this device which created space for Johnson who proved to show a high-level of accuracy at all times. Credit for the complex calculations that she performed by hand was given to her, as even the astronaut had great faith in her hand calculations than the computer’s very own.

It was recounted by her that Glenn’s last words before his launch were, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” In that moment, he put his trust in her hand calculations as she double checked the accuracy of the numbers that came out of the computer. This is a powerful message that will continue to resonate in our lives as we see at this point in time a shift in focus away from the division created between black and white. The focus was put instead on trying to get the person that was best suited for the job, no matter the colour of their skin.

At that moment, it is mesmerising to think that, Katherine Johnson was that person that they needed for the calculations for the trajectories. Without her expertise in looking beyond into the places that many of her white counterparts couldn’t reach, they might not have been able to obtain the numbers that were needed to ensure that the astronaut would return back safely.

She had a hand in the historical moment of the launching of America’s first human into orbit of planet Earth. She made history even when she didn’t know it. She was one of the firsts for many things, but she was very much unaware of these achievements at that time.
This was shown as she didn’t blow her trumpet to the ground-breaking feats that she should have rightfully claimed. Her story was not told until recently. The mark she made in the history of space travel was almost going to be forgotten if it wasn’t for the book written by Margot Lee Shetterly’s in the year of 2016, ‘Hidden Figures’.

Her work that she left behind would have been erased in the click of the fingers and little black girls wouldn’t have been able to witness all that she did. They wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see someone that looked just like them in a position that was predominately dominated by white men.
It was safe to say that these roles were not given to a woman, yet alone a black woman. Her tenacious nature and the drive she had to take a hold of a position that paralleled with her expertise was also seen in a woman that goes by the name of Mary Jackson. She like Katherine Johnson was a black woman of great intelligence, however, her niche was not in calculations.

Although her brain didn’t work on the same speed in which Katherine’s did to solve mathematical calculations, she still had an analytical brain that caused her to become a female engineer. She led the way for black female engineers as she, being the first to be a black female aeronautical engineer, opened a few of the many shut doors that aspiring black female engineers would have met along the way in their journeys.

In her chasing her dreams of becoming an engineer, she broke the stigma that a great majority had of blacks not being intelligent enough to work in the field of science. She was black and unapologetically working in a field that was seen by many as too difficult for those with the same skin colour as her. In her journey to becoming an engineer, she was required to take up certain extra courses that were taught in an all-white institution.

Despite the many hinderances she faced, she mustered up the courage to look beyond. She didn’t allow this obstacle to stop her from progressing her knowledge to another level. She believed that even though rules were put in place in that moment, it didn’t mean that it wouldn’t ever change to work in one’s favour.

The ability she had to see the possibility of her being accepted into these classes against all odds, enabled her to be the first black African American female to become an aeronautical engineer. If she didn’t take a risk in trying to bend the rules to work in her favour, she wouldn’t have made history and she wouldn’t have fulfilled her full potential. There was nothing she was going to lose in trying to enter the spaces that were unfairly against the entrance of blacks.

She had to be the first to take a chance against the system that was built to tear down the black man. Her success in gaining a seat at a table filled with white men should be seen as a testament to her bravery. She fought till the end without giving up.
The third woman portrayed in the hidden figures was Dorothy Vaughan, who acted as the helm of the division of the black women working as ‘computers’. She was working in a position that did the work of a supervisor but was not getting the pay of one. She was similar to the rest in that she possessed a persevering character which kept her pushing to be promoted to other positions in the company.

This led her to become the first black woman to become a supervisor in the company and one of the first in the company to learn the first high-level programming language. She later taught this skill to others and put this skill to great use in the programming of the IBM computers that eventually arrived.

These stories resonate with me as a young black girl studying mechanical engineering. I often see parallels with experiences I have had despite living in a society that is open to diversity. In recent times, the inclusion of all has become eminent in every aspect of our lives which makes it easier for one to pursue their dreams.

However, the lack of representation of blacks in rare positions like these is what dwindles the desire to occupy these spaces. Many tend to pursue paths that have a history of being pursued by people that look like them.

There is a sense of familiarity that we feel when we see our fellow blacks occupying the same spaces that we are in. There is a feeling of apprehension when we don’t see people that look like us nearby when we need help to be pulled up when knocked down.
This was something I knew I was inevitably going to face, knowing that I was not made for studying subjects of the arts as I didn’t have the flair for these essay-based subjects. I was more inclined to getting a better score in a maths-based subject than in an essay for a humanity-based subject.

This drew the line between me and many black students as I was the only black in all my classes in the last two years of my studies before the start of university. Therefore, applying for a university course that again had less of people that looked like me was not something that was difficult to come into terms with.

To my surprise there were more blacks in my course in my year which made things bearable as I had a few to lean on. This made the process of coming to terms with the fact of being the only black girl much easier, as I knew it would have been much worse to be the only black person studying the course.

It is comforting to hear stories like these because the recognition of a black person’s achievement is something we don’t see often. The act of unravelling the hidden stories of blacks making a difference in different parts of the world, will act as a fuel in sparking inspiration in the youth.

We need to not only tell our stories but help each other to shine a light on the impact that we are making as a black community. In building each other up by praising each other for the things each one of us have achieved will prevent stories like these from being stuck in their hiding places. The lateness in the acknowledgements of the work done by people like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan would have been prevented.

The powerful tool of storytelling should be utilized to spread the awareness of the different spaces that we, blacks, are occupying. We need to see the black changemakers especially in the science field being brought out today, as this is a space that we don’t often see enough blacks occupying.
We need to learn from them the things that they are doing to differentiate themselves from the rest and how we can follow in their paths of creating change. We can’t allow history to repeat itself of the lack of documentation of the ground-breaking works done by a black person.