Chapter 2 describes the experiences of African American women working in a laundry boiler plant at Camp Pickett during World War II. The work was difficult and uncomfortable due to the intense heat and humidity, but it was important for supporting the war effort. Many of the women had previously worked as domestic servants or in tobacco factories. Dorothy Vaughan, a college graduate and math teacher, took the job at the plant to earn extra money during the summer break. Despite the challenges, the women worked hard and made significant contributions to the war effort.
Dorothy had a college degree but decided to take a laundry job, which was dirty and difficult, to earn extra money for her four children. She believed that education was important to secure her children’s future in a world where discrimination could harm their economic security. Dorothy’s mother died when she was young, and her stepmother pushed her to succeed academically and musically. She earned a full-tuition scholarship to a private college and was celebrated for her intelligence, work ethic, and humility. Dorothy represented hope for the future of Black people in America.
Dorothy, a brilliant black scholar, attended Wilberforce and graduated with excellent grades in math. Her professor recommended her for graduate study in math at Howard University, where she would be taught by some of the finest black scholars in the world. However, due to the Great Depression, she decided to pursue a degree in education instead, and became a teacher. She faced challenges in finding stable work as a black teacher in the rural south during the Depression. Dorothy married Howard Vaughan, a bellman who worked at luxury hotels, and settled in Farmville, Virginia. Dorothy was a conservative spender and played the piano at the First Baptist Church.
Dorothy Vaughan saw a notice for a laundry job at Camp Pickett while at the post office, but also noticed another bulletin for mathematical jobs related to airplanes, aimed at white students from the State Teachers College. The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory would not have been on her radar as a job option, but black newspapers were actively promoting available war jobs. An article in the Norfolk Journal and Guide about eleven well-dressed black women who had graduated from Engineering for Women, a war training class, caught Dorothy’s attention. There were black jobs and good black jobs, and certain professions such as teachers, preachers, doctors, and lawyers were highly respected.
Dorothy Vaughan sees an opportunity to improve her family’s future by applying for a job at an aeronautical laboratory. She fills out two job applications, one for a position at Camp Pickett and another longer one that details her qualifications and history. She indicates a willingness to work in Washington, DC, and can be ready to start within 48 hours.
1. Describe Dorothy Vaughan: what is she like? What do you learn of her background?
Dorothy Vaughan is a determined and hard-working African American woman who is dedicated to providing for her children’s future. From chapter 2, we learn that she has already been a teacher and has been fighting for equal pay for African American teachers. We also learn that she has a strong educational background, having attended both high school and college, and has studied French at Wilberforce.
2. What kinds of employment opportunities were available to African American women at this time?
During the time period referenced in chapter 2, the opportunities for African American women were limited and largely centered around domestic service, teaching, and agricultural work. However, as the country was in the midst of World War II, new job opportunities were becoming available in areas such as defense work and factories.
3. Why is the opportunity for a job at Langley so unique to Dorothy?
The opportunity to work at Langley was unique for Dorothy Vaughan because it offered her a chance to break into a field that was not typically open to African Americans and women. Furthermore, the salary offered was much higher than what she was earning as a teacher, and the job itself was considered new and cutting-edge.
4. In her application, Dorothy said that she could be ready to accept employment at Langley within 48 hours. Why do you think she makes that claim?
It’s likely that Dorothy made the claim that she could be ready to accept employment at Langley within 48 hours because she recognized the urgency of the situation. Langley was in need of workers and time was of the essence. By being able to start work so quickly, she was positioning herself as an attractive candidate for the job, which could potentially give her an advantage over other applicants. Additionally, given her previous experience in teaching and other work, she may have felt confident in her ability to transition quickly to a new role.
5. What is meant by the title, ‘Mobilization’?
The title of the chapter, ‘Mobilization’, refers to the mobilization of African American women to contribute to the war effort during World War II. The chapter describes how African American women, including Dorothy Vaughan, were employed in various jobs to support the war effort, even in difficult and uncomfortable conditions. The opportunity for a job at Langley, a prestigious aeronautical laboratory, was unique for Dorothy and represented a chance to improve her family’s future. The chapter highlights the importance of African American women’s contributions to the war effort and their determination to overcome discrimination and pursue economic security for themselves and their families.