Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Home by the Sea – Summary
Chapter 10 of “Hidden Figures” describes Mary Jackson’s roots in Hampton, Virginia. She grew up in the Olde Hampton neighborhood, built on the foundations of the Grand Contraband Camp founded by slaves who had liberated themselves during the Civil War. The refugees sought shelter as “contraband of war” in the Union stronghold at Fort Monroe, and their story is memorialized in the street names of the neighborhood, such as Lincoln, Grant, Union, and Liberty.
Mary’s family, the Winstons, had deep roots in Hampton, and she followed in their footsteps by enrolling at Hampton Institute, which had also graduated her parents and older siblings. The school’s philosophy of Negro advancement through self-help and practical and industrial training mirrored the aspirations and philosophy of the surrounding black community.
Mary’s presence at NACA, built on plantation land, was a rebuke to Woodrow Wilson’s short-sighted intolerance of racial segregation in the Civil Service. Mary’s fellow West Computers, including Dorothy Vaughan, were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority that Mary had pledged as an undergraduate at Hampton Institute. Mary graduated with highest honors from Phenix High School, located on the Hampton Institute campus, and served as the de facto public secondary school for the city’s Negro students, since the city provided schooling for them only through elementary school.
Mary Jackson was a student at Hampton Institute where most female students graduated with degrees in home economics or nursing. Mary, however, had a strong analytical bent and completed two rigorous majors in mathematics and physical science. After graduating, she worked as a math teacher at a Negro high school in Maryland but returned to Hampton to help care for her father. She then worked at the King Street USO as a secretary and bookkeeper, where she organized dances, played piano during singalongs, and helped military families find suitable places to live. The USO was also where she met her future husband, Levi Jackson. After the war, Mary worked briefly as a bookkeeper at Hampton Institute’s Health Service but left after the birth of her son. Mary spent most of her free time as the leader of Bethel AME’s Girl Scout Troop No. 11, where she helped the girls with their homework, sewed dresses, and acted as a teacher, big sister, and fairy godmother to the troop.
Mary Jackson, a troop leader, had a powerful moment with her girls when she refused to sing a folk tune that reinforced negative stereotypes about Black people. She encouraged her girls to break free from any self-imposed limitations and raise their expectations. Later, Mary applied for a clerical position with the army and as a computer at Langley. She was hired as a clerk typist at Fort Monroe and required to get a secret security clearance due to the sensitive nature of the documents that passed through the office. With tensions rising between the United States and the Soviet Union, the NACA proposed to double its employment level. Mary accepted a job offer to work for Dorothy Vaughan as an NACA computer.
The Langley laboratory had undergone significant changes in the eight years since Dorothy Vaughan’s first day of work, with new buildings and aeronautical research facilities, including the world’s largest hangar, which housed the laboratory’s fleet of research aircraft, including the X-plane series. Breaking the sound barrier opened up new possibilities for flight, but also presented new challenges, particularly in the transonic region. The NACA focused on designing military production aircraft capable of supersonic flight, and even hypersonic flight in the future. They built a hypersonic wind tunnel, Project 506, and a Gas Dynamics Laboratory capable of testing up to Mach 18. The vacuum spheres being built for the Gas Dynamics Laboratory became one of the most recognizable landmarks on the Virginia Peninsula.
The chapter then describes the impact of the Cold War on Langley, where Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson worked. The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of spying for the Soviet Union, led to a nationwide hysteria about communism and spies infiltrating the country. Langley was not immune to this and an engineer who had worked there, William Perl, was accused of espionage. Perl was eventually cleared but convicted of perjury. The FBI investigated Langley employees, and anti-Semitism and racial prejudice fueled rumors of subversion among “New York communist people” and “practically impossible New York Jews” working at Langley. The Stability Research Division, where Dorothy Hoover worked, was a particular target. The fear of communism and the government’s scrutiny of employees put Dorothy Vaughan’s job at risk. A black computer, Matilda West, who was one of the leaders of the local NAACP, was fired from Langley, possibly due to accusations of disloyalty. The fear of communism was a bonanza for segregationists like Virginia senator Harry Byrd, who used the label “communist” to paint everyone and everything that threatened his view of “traditional” American customs and values, including white supremacy.
In the end, chapter 10 describes how foreigners who traveled to the United States in the mid-1900s often experienced discrimination based on the color of their skin. These incidents were humiliating and caught the attention of the international community, which began to question America’s model of democracy. Truman’s decision to desegregate the military through Executive Order 9981 was influenced by concerns about how the international audience viewed US racial problems. Executive Order 9980 made federal department heads “personally responsible” for maintaining a discrimination-free work environment. Langley’s West Area Computers, a group of black women computers, were often transferred to non-segregated units and were a well-kept secret in the federal government but were well-known in the black professional community of south eastern Virginia.
Racism and Inequality:
- The racial segregation and discrimination that Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary face on a daily basis at Langley, such as having to use separate restrooms and dining facilities and being referred to as “colored computers”.
- The injustice of the legal system that leads to the wrongful conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
- The bond and support among the African American women who work at Langley, who form their own tight-knit community despite facing discrimination from their white colleagues.
- The community of supporters who rally around the Rosenbergs during their trial and appeal, including celebrities and activists who believe in their innocence.
Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work:
- The stroke of luck that Katherine receives when she is given the opportunity to work with the Space Task Group, which leads to her pivotal role in the launch of John Glenn’s mission.
- The persistent action and hard work of the African American women at Langley, who continue to show up and excel in their work despite facing discrimination and racism.
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress:
- The tension between the rapid scientific progress that is being made at Langley in the development of space technology and the slow progress in achieving social and political equality for African Americans.
- The propaganda war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union uses examples of racial injustice and inequality in the US as a means of discrediting the US’s claims of democracy and freedom.
- Describe Mary Jackson: What do we learn about her background? How is she similar to Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Goble?
Mary Jackson was one of the African American women who worked as a “computer” at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1950s and 1960s, as described in the book “Hidden Figures”. Mary Jackson was a mathematician who graduated from Hampton Institute with degrees in math and physical science. She also worked as a teacher before joining Langley.
Like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson faced racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, including segregated bathrooms and cafeterias, and being paid less than their white, male counterparts. However, she, along with Vaughan and Goble, was determined to succeed despite these challenges. Mary Jackson was described as having a passion for science and a tenacious spirit, which helped her overcome barriers and break down racial and gender barriers at NASA.
Mary Jackson’s work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel helped pave the way for the successful flight of astronauts such as John Glenn. Her legacy continues today, as she inspired many other women and minorities to pursue careers in science and technology.
- How does Mary embody and enact her family’s motto of “sharing and caring”?
Mary Jackson embodies and enacts her family’s motto of “sharing and caring” in several ways. First, she is described as a loving and devoted mother who often put her family’s needs before her own. When her children were young, she took a job as a teacher at the local school so that she could be home with them during the summer months. Additionally, when her husband suffered a debilitating illness, she took on extra work to support the family and care for him.
Second, Mary was known for her generosity and willingness to help others. She often used her expertise in mathematics and engineering to mentor and advise younger women at Langley, including Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Goble. Mary also worked with the local Girl Scout troop and organized math and science classes for the girls.
Finally, Mary was deeply committed to her community and actively engaged in local organizations and initiatives. She was a member of the National Council of Negro Women and the Hampton University Alumni Association, among other groups. Mary also worked with local schools to promote education for girls and minorities.
In all of these ways, Mary Jackson embodies and enacts her family’s motto of “sharing and caring” by putting the needs of others before her own and working to improve the lives of those around her.
- In what ways did the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg affect life at Langley?
The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had a profound impact on life at Langley. The Rosenbergs were accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and were convicted of espionage in 1951. The trial intensified the anti-communist fervor in the United States and led to increased scrutiny of government employees, including those at Langley.
At Langley, employees were required to undergo loyalty screenings and answer questions about their political affiliations and associations. The clearance process became more stringent, and some employees were dismissed or forced to resign due to suspected communist ties. Mary Jackson, for example, was investigated by the FBI, which interviewed her neighbors and co-workers as part of a routine background check.
The trial also created a climate of fear and suspicion, with some employees reporting on their colleagues to the authorities. In this atmosphere, maintaining a low profile and avoiding controversy became a survival strategy for many black professionals at Langley. Some employees saw the West Computing group as a safe haven from the politics and intrigue of the larger organization.
Overall, the Rosenberg trial contributed to a sense of unease and insecurity at Langley, especially for those who were seen as potential targets of the government’s loyalty investigations.
- How do the racial problems in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s change the perception of the U.S. abroad? How is this used as propaganda by the Soviet Union?
The racial problems in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s had a significant impact on the perception of the U.S. abroad. Many newly independent countries around the world, looking for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on the path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with the question of why a black or brown nation would stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them. The humiliating experiences of foreigners who traveled to the United States, such as being denied service in hotels and restaurants, were often the talk of the town in the envoys’ home countries.
This negative perception of the United States was used as propaganda by the Soviet Union. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal. The Soviet Union used this to portray itself as a more enlightened, just and racially tolerant society, in comparison to the United States. This was particularly effective in Africa, where the Soviet Union made a significant effort to win allies in the newly independent states. The Soviet Union was able to use the racial problems in the United States to portray the U.S. as a hypocritical nation that did not practice what it preached.
- What is meant by the title of Chapter 10, ‘Home by the Sea’?
The title of Chapter 10, ‘Home by the Sea’, refers to Mary Jackson’s decision to move her family to a house in Hampton, Virginia, which was located near the Chesapeake Bay. The move was significant for Mary and her family because it represented their attainment of the American dream, having a home of their own, as well as a new level of comfort and security.
Additionally, the Chesapeake Bay was a place of significance for African Americans in the region, as it was one of the few places where they were allowed to enjoy the beach during segregation. Thus, the title of the chapter represents Mary’s personal achievement and the continued struggle for equality in the face of segregation.
Mahatma Gandhi: Indian independence leader who was denied service at a restaurant in the South of the United States because of his dark skin in 1947.
Harry Truman: President of the United States who issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948, desegregating the military, and Executive Order 9980, which made the heads of each federal department personally responsible for maintaining a work environment free of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.
A. Philip Randolph: Civil rights leader who helped bring West Area Computing into existence by proposing a wartime mandate to desegregate the defense industry during World War II.
Senator Harry Byrd: Senator Harry Byrd was a prominent politician from Virginia who served as a United States Senator from 1933 to 1965. He was a member of the Democratic Party, and was known for his conservative views on fiscal policy and civil rights. Byrd was also a staunch segregationist, and he led a campaign in the 1950s to resist the integration of Virginia’s public schools. He was a strong supporter of massive resistance, a policy of shutting down public schools rather than integrating them, and he played a key role in the creation of the State Sovereignty Commission, which sought to maintain segregation in Virginia. Byrd was also a leading opponent of President Truman’s civil rights proposals, and he supported the Dixiecrat movement in 1948, which sought to prevent the integration of the Democratic Party.
NAACP: The NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is a civil rights organization founded in 1909 in response to the ongoing violence and discrimination against African Americans in the United States. The organization has played a significant role in advocating for and achieving civil rights, including landmark legal victories such as Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools, and the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. The NAACP continues to be active in fighting against racial inequality and injustice in the United States.
Christine Richie: One of the women who applied for a job at West Area Computing after hearing about it in the Huntington High School teachers’ lounge.
Aurelia Boaz: A 1949 graduate of Hampton Institute who heard about West Area Computing through the college grapevine.
Kemble Johnson: Langley’s administrative officer who wrote a 1951 memo about the West Area Computers being a segregated work unit.