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black tech legacy

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Two years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law, prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Laboratory began hiring black women to meet the skyrocketing demand for processing aeronautical research data. Urgency and twenty-four hour shifts prevailed– as did Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.

Dorothy Vaughan helmed West Computing for nearly a decade. She retired from NASA in 1971. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alumni, including Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Eunice Smith and Kathryn Peddrew, and the achievements of second-generation mathematicians and engineers such as Dr. Christine Darden.