Mary W. Jackson, An Iconic Woman in Black History

Black history is human history and February is Black History Month where we give recognition to the Black men, women and others who have advocated for their rights, shaped our world today and where we give thanks and appreciation. Many Black women have discovered, created and led in this world.  Today lets bring recognition to Mary W.  Jackson, a Black woman of great importance to our world.

Mary W. Jackson

Mary W. Jackson is an iconic woman in Black history as she opened opportunities for black females everywhere to show their smarts and not be ashamed.  Jackson was an extremely smart mathematician, a wife, mother, teacher, and engineer.  Jackson started her NASA career in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.  Being a mathematician and aerospace engineer she lead programs and projects. She was able to hire, influence and promote women in NASA’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

Jackson was Born and raised in Hampton, Virginia in 1921. She was raised in a heavily segregated time but did not let society’s racism towards Black women stop her from pursuing her career and expressing her knowledge.  According to NASA Jackson graduated from high school and later on graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in mathematics and physical sciences.  She had accepted a job as a math teacher in Calvert County, Maryland and worked as a bookkeeper. Jackson also had a job as a U.S. Army secretary. She married a man named Levi Jackson and started a family of her own prior to the start of her career in aerospace. 

NASA states that Jackson was recruited for the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics in 1951. In 1958 this was succeeded by NASA.  She did research there as a mathematician. Jackson was known to be the human computer at Langley.  She worked under fellow colleague and “hidden figure” Dorthy Vaughan. While working for two years in the computing pool Jackson got an offer to work inside the 4 by 4 foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel.  She conducted hands-on experiments which led her supervisor to recommend her to enter a training program to become an engineer.  The program she needed to attend was held at an all white high school. Jackson had needed special permission to go to the school among the white students.  Jackson successfully completed her courses and earned the promotion. 

Mary Jackson in the Supersonic Wind Tunnel

In 1958 Mary W. Jackson became NASA’s first Black female engineer.  For about two decades under her engineering career she authored and co-authored reports mostly on the behaviour of the boundary layer of air surrounding airplanes.  Jackson joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program in 1979.  This is where Jackson worked hard to push for the promotion of women in engineering, math and technology for NASA in the coming generations.  Mary eventually retired from Langley in 1985.  

In 2016 the non-fiction book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shatterling brought widespread attention to the West Area Computing Unit. The book tells the story of Mary W. Jackson’s work as a mathematician at NASA.  The book was then turned into the nominated and  award-winning film “Hidden Figures” in 2017.  Mary’s Character was portrayed by award-winning actress Janelle Monet.  The movie tells the story of the three female mathematicians, the “hidden figures” of NASA , Katherine Johnson, Mary W. Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn and their role in the 1962 launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.  Taraji P. Henson portrayed Katherine Johnson’s character in the film while Octavia Spencer took on the role of  Dorothy Vaughan.  The movie brought further recognition to the women working at NASA and told the story of these three great women. Their knowledge and strength got them through their jobs  as they not only dealt with the issue of segregation in their time but also struggled with society’s gender roles for women.

World Recognition

The NASA website says that in 2019, after a bipartisan bill by Sens. Ted Cruz, Ed Markey, John Thune and Bill Nelson made it through congress, a portion of E Street SW in front of NASA Headquarters was renamed the Hidden Figures Way.

Hidden Figures Way

Also in 2019 former President Donald Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act that awarded Mary W. Jackson, who had already passed in 2005, and her fellow “Hidden Figure” colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden with Congressional Gold Medals.

This year NASA’s DC Headquarters was renamed after Jackson.

Workers at the 4′ by 4′ Supersonic Pressure Tunnel