Have you ever seen a computer in a skirt?
Duchess Harris has.
In a photo submitted to Historically Black, a project by The Washington Post, Miriam Daniel Mann walks with purpose down a Hampton, Va., street in 1943, clutching a thick, hardcover book. She sports heels, a fashionable turban and a coat with two large buttons, the hemline of her plaid skirt peering out underneath.
Mann, Harris’ grandmother, was one of the first black female computers employed by NASA’s predecessor,the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
To Harris, the photo of her grandmother represents a level of socioeconomic opportunity not often available to black women in the 1940s. Mann’s professional attire was dramatically different from the uniforms the majority of black women wore to domestic jobs at the time.
“For a black woman to have that level of education and professional respect then” was certainly something to be proud of, Harris said. “She looks upper-middle class,” she added.
“Human computers” were responsible for calculating the math – arithmetic, calculus, differential equations, trigonometry, analytic geometry, you name it – for engineers with not much but a pencil and slide rule in hand.
Computing had always been grunt work left to women – white women. White female computers had been working at Langley Research Center since 1935, but in 1943, NACA began recruiting black female mathematicians for human computer positions to cope with labor shortages as a consequence of World War II.
Word of the job opportunity at Langley reached Mann across town at Hampton University, where she lived with her husband, Bill, who was a professor there. Mann, a graduate of Talladega College with a major in chemistry and a minor in mathematics, applied for the job. As part of the application process, black female applicants were required to complete a 10-week course at Hampton University, then the Hampton Institute. Mann was one of 11 women in the first cohort. Upon completion of the course, she qualified for the human computing job, which paid $2,000 a year, a little more than a $25,000 salary in 2016. She took the job.
When Harris shared her grandmother’s story with others, few believed her. A black woman working for NASA more than 20 years before the Civil Rights Act? It was the doubts of others that motivated Harris to write a book about the incredible feats of her grandmother and other black female computers. While doing research for that book, Harris’ mother gave her the photo of Mann walking to her job at Langley.
“This was a great opportunity for a very, very small percentage of black people,” Harris said.
This time period is also refereed to as a “time when computers wore skirts,” a line oft employed by Katherine Johnson, a black female mathematician hired by NACA in 1953 and one of Mann’s colleagues at Langley.
By the time NACA became NASA in 1958, there were black female computers employed, according to the agency. Come the early 1960s, Mann, Johnson and the rest of NASA’s black female computers were playing an instrumental, yet hidden, role in the space race. The “untold true story” of NASA’s black female computers is the inspiration for the book “Hidden Figures,” by Margot Lee Shetterly. That book is the basis for a movie bearing the same name starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, coming to theaters in January 2017.
Johnson, the central character in the book and film, was plucked from the segregated pool of black female computers and assigned to an all-white-male flight research team. John Glenn personally requested that Johnson hand-verify all the trajectory calculations rendered by NASA’s fancy new electronic computers for his 1962 mission to orbit Earth. Mann also worked on computations for Glenn’s flight ship that would circle the planet three times in four hours and 56 minutes.
A year after Glenn’s flight, Mann completed 20 years of service with NASA. Harris has the letter congratulating Mann for her service.
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You can hear host Keegan-Michael Key share more tales about Mann’s time at NASA on the podcast Historically Black, a podcast co-production between APM Reports and The Post that tells the stories of people’s lived experiences of black history through the objects that evoke those connection.