Born on April 9, 1921 in Hampton, Virginia, Mary Jackson was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which in 1958 was succeeded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. She worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for most of her career. She was NASA's first black female engineer.
For Mary Winston Jackson, a love of science and a commitment to improving the lives of the people around her were one and the same. In the 1970s, she helped the youngsters in the science club at Hampton’s King Street Community center build their own wind tunnel and use it to conduct experiments. “We have to do something like this to get them interested in science," she said in an article for the local newspaper. "Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don't even know of the career opportunities until it is too late."
Mary’s own path to an engineering career at the NASA Langley Research Center was far from direct. She graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences, and accepted a job as a math teacher at a black school in Calvert County, Maryland. Then she did several different jobs before landing at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951.
After two years in the computing pool, Mary received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Czarnecki offered Mary hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility, and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Trainees had to take graduate level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, however, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. Never one to flinch in the face of a challenge, she completed the courses and earned the promotion.
For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports. As the years progressed, the promotions slowed, and she became frustrated at her inability to break into management-level grades. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.
(Biography by Margot Lee Shetterly)