The Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville was overcrowded and lacking in resources, but teacher Dorothy Vaughan worked hard to provide a quality education for her students. She was also involved in the community and supported the war effort by teaching wartime mathematics. Despite her deep roots in Farmville, when she received a job offer as a Mathematician in Langley, she was determined to take it, even though it required a six-day workweek and a long commute. Her pay at Langley was more than twice her teaching salary at Moton.

Dorothy Vaughan’s departure from her job at a high school in Farmville to work at Langley Field for NACA was unremarkable, with no fanfare or farewell party. She left her family behind and boarded a bus to Newport News, where she had secured temporary housing. Dorothy wondered what it would be like to work with white people and how she would endure being away from her children. Her departure complicated her marriage with Howard, with whom she already spent extended periods apart.

Howard longed for the simplicity of small-town life while Dorothy filled every spare hour with activity, including attending NAACP meetings and piano rehearsals at the church. Dorothy chose teaching and traveled to Virginia State College for Negroes to take an evening extension course in education. The Vaughan family rented a house in West Virginia while Howard worked as a bellman at the Greenbrier, and they befriended the Coleman family who had children including Katherine, a math prodigy who had graduated from high school at fourteen and was taken under the wing of William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, a gifted young math professor at West Virginia State Institute.

The chapter discusses the parallel paths of Dorothy and Katherine, who both attended the historically black college, Wilberforce University. Katherine graduated with honors in math and French and went on to participate in the desegregation of graduate schools in West Virginia, but ultimately chose to prioritize her family over her career. Dorothy, who had also been admitted to graduate school at Howard University but had to drop out due to financial difficulties, became a teacher in Farmville. However, a second chance would soon come her way in the form of a temporary job in Newport News during WWII. The chapter ends with Dorothy’s arrival in Newport News, a bustling war boomtown ready to receive its newest resident.

Active Themes:

Chapter 3 – Past is Prologue highlights several active themes, including racial discrimination, gender inequality, education, career choices, and family. The following evidence supports each theme:

  1. Racial discrimination: The passage emphasizes the challenges faced by African Americans in the early 20th century, such as segregation and limited access to education and employment opportunities. Dorothy Vaughan’s decision to leave her teaching job and move to Newport News to work as a mathematician at Langley Field is an example of how African Americans had to move away from their families and communities to pursue better jobs. Additionally, the passage notes that Dorothy wondered how she would cope with working with white people, indicating the racial divide in the workplace at that time.
  2. Gender inequality: The passage suggests that women faced limited career options and were often forced to choose between work and family. Dorothy Vaughan’s decision to leave her family behind and work in Newport News reflects the limited options available to women in terms of career advancement. Furthermore, the passage highlights that Katherine, a math prodigy who graduated from high school at fourteen, ultimately chose to prioritize her family over her career.
  3. Education: The passage underscores the importance of education, particularly for African Americans who faced systemic discrimination and limited access to education. Dorothy Vaughan pursued an evening extension course in education at Virginia State College for Negroes, while Katherine graduated with honors in math and French from Wilberforce University.
  4. Career choices: The passage highlights the challenges faced by individuals in choosing between pursuing their career aspirations and balancing family responsibilities. Both Dorothy and Katherine had to make difficult choices in terms of their career paths, with Dorothy leaving her teaching job to pursue a career in mathematics and Katherine ultimately choosing to prioritize her family over her career.
  5. Family: The passage emphasizes the importance of family and the sacrifices individuals made to pursue their career aspirations. Dorothy Vaughan had to leave her family behind to work in Newport News, while Katherine chose to prioritize her family over her career. Additionally, the passage notes that Dorothy’s departure complicated her marriage with Howard, suggesting the challenges faced by families in pursuing career opportunities.


  1. How did Dorothy handle the balance between her family life and work aspirations?

Ans. Dorothy Vaughan faced a common challenge that many working mothers experience – how to balance family life and work aspirations. As a single mother, Dorothy had to work to provide for her family, but she also had aspirations to achieve more in her career. Throughout the book, we see Dorothy making choices that prioritize her family’s needs over her work aspirations. For example, when she was offered a teaching position in the city, she declined because she did not want to uproot her children from their stable life in Farmville. Similarly, when she was offered a job at Langley, she initially declined because she did not want to leave her family behind. However, she eventually took the job and found ways to balance her work and family life, such as taking her children to the library to do their homework while she worked late.

2. What does this job mean for Dorothy in terms of social mobility?

Ans. For Dorothy, this job at Langley meant a significant increase in social mobility. Before Langley, she was a math teacher in a segregated school in Farmville, Virginia, earning a modest salary. However, at Langley, she was able to use her math skills to contribute to the war effort, and her hard work and dedication led to a promotion and an increase in pay. She was also able to work alongside white colleagues, something that was not possible in her previous job due to segregation laws. This job allowed her to break out of the limited opportunities available to black women at the time and provided a pathway for career advancement and increased social status.

3. From what we know so far, in what ways do Dorothy and Katherine’s experiences mirror each other? In what ways are they different?

Ans. Dorothy and Katherine’s experiences mirror each other in many ways. They both grew up in a similar environment, where education was highly valued and encouraged. They both attended historically black colleges, where they excelled in math and other subjects. After graduating, they both faced barriers to furthering their education and career aspirations due to segregation laws. However, they also had some differences in their experiences. For example, Katherine was able to complete her degree in math and French with honors and began graduate studies at West Virginia University. In contrast, Dorothy had to leave school early to support her family and did not have the same educational opportunities as Katherine. Additionally, while Katherine left her graduate program to focus on her family, Dorothy continued to pursue her career aspirations and became a trailblazer for black women in the field of mathematics.

4. What is meant by the chapter title, ‘Past is Prologue’?

The phrase ‘past is prologue’ means that events that have happened in the past set the stage for what is happening in the present and will continue to shape the future. In other words, the past is a prelude or introduction to what is to come. It suggests that understanding historical events is essential to understanding current events and can provide insights into what may happen in the future. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, where it is inscribed on a statue outside a palace to suggest that the history of the palace is the foundation for its present and future.

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