Mary Jackson: Greatness Beyond Figures

After a long and trailblazing career in the male-dominated NASA space agency, Mary Jackson called it quits.

For a week.

She told her daughter, Carolyn Lewis, “I can’t do this. I can’t just sit around and watch shows (soap operas) all day. I’ve got to work.”

So Mary Winston Jackson – the woman who became the first black female aerospace engineer in 1958, the woman who authored or co-authored 12 technical research papers for NASA and who, with her fellow trailblazers, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, contributed to the historic launch of an American astronaut in 1961 – returned to NASA, but in a different role that would link her to future generations of female engineers in the aeronautics field.

More later about Ms. Jackson’s remarkable “Second Act.” But last week, United Steelworkers Local 8888 honored Ms. Jackson at a Black History Month reception in Newport News, VA. The union presented its 2017 Trailblazer Award to her family -- daughter, Carolyn, and her husband, Raymond Lewis, a trustee of Local 8888, who accepted the award on behalf of Ms. Jackson, who died in 2005.

Carolyn thanked Local 8888 President Arnold Outlaw, who presented the award, and the membership for honoring her mother, who is portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures,” along with Ms. Johnson and Ms. Vaughn.

Fighting through tears, she said, “This [award] means so much. Momma loved God and she loved people. She taught us all who we were and what we could become if we put our minds to it.”

But just who is this pioneer who defied the odds in the segregated South?

“She was an agitator. She stood her ground,” said Carolyn, who watched her mother defy doubters and petition the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics, courses that were only offered at night at the all-white Hampton High School. Ms. Jackson succeeded. She then completed the courses and was promoted to an engineering position, a remarkable feat for a black woman in a state that resisted the civil rights movement.

Carolyn said her mother loved her job, although the working conditions that she and other black “computers” endured were stressful. “They put her in the wind tunnel to do experiments – the worst place a woman could be,” she said, because the room was so small (4 x 4 feet) and generated winds at almost twice the speed of sound.
In fact, Ms. Jackson nearly resigned because she had had enough of the separate and unequal accommodations. “Momma would come home very angry sometimes,” Carolyn recalled. “They [the black NASA employees] had the hardest conditions. They would often come over to our house after work and talk about the unfair situation and what should be done to make it right for everybody.”

Carolyn, now 61 years-old, reminisced about a childhood household where Mary Jackson would find solace playing her cello or viola in the evening. “Momma was a very musical person,” she said, “and she played her instruments beautifully.”

Carolyn also recalls “we always had people at our house.” Among the guests would be young students from Hampton Institute who needed housing, and Ms. Jackson, a Hampton graduate herself, opened her home to them.

“They became my ‘other’ sisters and brothers,” laughed Carolyn, who was raised with another sibling, Levi, now deceased. “Momma would ask them what they wanted to accomplish in life, because she didn’t want them to waste their time in college.”

That connection to young people, that intense desire to open doors and nurture dreams was a consistent thread in Mary Jackson’s life and career. She tutored students in math throughout her career – free. She was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than 30 years, mentoring hundreds of black girls who would later credit her with shaping their values and path to success.

So when she “unretired” – after only a week – she didn’t return to her old NASA engineering job. Mary Jackson took her “Second Act” in a new direction. She served as manager of both the Federal Women’s Program, in the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and the Affirmative Action Program.

She used this dramatic career change as a platform to give back, to help other women and people of color advance their careers, advising them to study and take extra courses to increase their opportunities for promotions. She also worked from the inside to influence the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, engineering and mathematics career tracks.

Yet, that kind of persistent advocacy is missing today and the consequences are profound. Every year 35,000 black female scientists and engineers earn graduate degrees, but these women make up less than 1% of the professional science and engineering workforce. Why so much wasted talent?

Eventually, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease overtook Mary Jackson, this great servant of the people. Carolyn took on the arduous care-giving duties, which ultimately led her to shorten her career in orthopedic nursing to provide full-time comfort to her ailing mother, who passed away at age 83.

Carolyn said she has seen the “Hidden Figures” film but has not yet read the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. She enjoyed the movie – mostly. “It’s important for this generation of girls and young women to know about determined women like my mother and Ms. Johnson and Ms. Vaughn – brilliant women who I called my “aunties.” She praised the main message of “Hidden Figures.” “They showed the world that you can do anything when you put your mind to it.”

Fortunately, the legacy of Mary Jackson will be memorialized by Local 8888. The union intends to frame a large picture poster of her and display it in the union hall in Newport News. As Local 8888 President Arnold Outlaw said, “She’s part of our extended Steelworker family now.”