Mary W. Jackson was a human-computer and made history at NASA by becoming their first African-American woman engineer.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
In a monumental move, NASA decided to change the name of its headquarters in order to honor Mary W. Jackson, the space agency's first Black woman engineer. The decision comes as the entire nation is set alight by a renewed desire for racial justice. The new name of the headquarters, located in Washington, DC, was announced on Wednesday, CBS News reports. While the change will obviously not solve for the systemic inequalities that persist in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), it is expected to pay heed to the progress that Jackson inspired when she joined the agency.
"Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space," affirmed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement by the organization. "Mary never accepted the status quo, she helped break barriers and open opportunities for African Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology. Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. It appropriately sits on 'Hidden Figures Way,' a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to this agency’s success."
Jackson's story was one of the central plots of the award-winning film Hidden Figures, a biographical film about Black woman mathematicians who worked at NASA. Artist Janelle Monáe portrayed the iconic engineer. She started her career at NASA in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, before going on to lead programs influencing the hiring and promotion of women in the agency's STEM careers. Last year, she was awarded the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal posthumously. Needless to say, she made a lasting impact on both NASA as well as American history at large.
Our headquarters building in Washington, D.C., will be named after Mary W. Jackson, the first African-American female engineer at NASA. She started in @NASAaero research and later moved into the personnel field, working to ensure equal opportunity in hiring and promotion. pic.twitter.com/eMandeaMyv— NASA (@NASA) June 24, 2020
Carolyn Lewis, Jackson's daughter, said the family was "honored" about the name. She stated, "We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson. She was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother, and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed, not only at NASA, but throughout this nation." Though the engineer made history, it was no easy task. For instance, even though she was invited to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, she required graduate-level courses in mathematics and physics to qualify for a promotion to engineer. At the time, these courses were offered in a night program by the University of Virginia—held at the all-white Hampton High School. Jackson had to petition the City of Hampton to allow her to attend the classes.
This was only one incident of institutional racism that she had to confront. Her career at NASA was defined not just by her immense and unparalleled contributions, but also by the discrimination she was forced to endure. The change in name recognizes that painful history and honors all of the engineer's experiences. Nonetheless, this is only a small part of bigger plan to eliminate racial inequalities at NASA. The agency will continue "the conversations started about a year ago with [their] Unity Campaign." Bridenstine added, "Hidden no more, we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds who have made NASA’s successful history of exploration possible."
New on Hidden Figures Way, Washington, DC: the Mary Jackson NASA Headquarters building.— NASA History Office (@NASAhistory) June 24, 2020
Jackson was an NACA human computer, NASA's first Black female engineer, and an advocate for professional women.
Her NASA career spanned over 30 years and epitomized science and service. pic.twitter.com/B3qdqjmdQ4