Mary W. Jackson

Mary Jackson, featured in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and portrayed in the movie of the same name by Janelle Monáe, was the first Black woman Engineer at NASA.

Jackson was born Mary Winston on April 9, 1921, to Ella (née Scott) and Frank Winston. She grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she graduated with honors from George P. Phenix Training School.  Jackson graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with degrees in both mathematics and physical sciences. After graduation, Jackson accepted a teaching position and held several more positions before she accepted a job with the NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory’s West Area Computers in 1951, where her supervisor was Dorothy Vaughan.

After two years in West Computing, Jackson was offered a computing position to work with engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. In addition to her computing tasks, Czarnecki offered her hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility and encouraged her to 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. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, she petitioned and received special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. Jackson completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first African American female engineer. She specialized in the incredibly complex field of boundary layer effects on aerospace vehicle configurations at supersonic speeds. That same year, she co-authored her first report, “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.” By 1975, she had authored or co-authored a total of 12 NACA and NASA technical publications.

In 1979, realizing that the glass ceiling was the rule, rather than the exception for Langley’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and voluntarily accepting a reduction-in-grade to serve as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field. Jackson filled 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 NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Jackson retired from Langley in 1985.

Among her many honors were an Apollo Group Achievement Award, and being named Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. She served as the Chairperson for one of the Center’s annual United Way campaigns, was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than three decades, and was a member of the National Technical Association (the oldest African American technical organization in the United States).

She and her husband Levi had an open-door policy for young Langley recruits trying to gain their footing in a new town and a new career. A 1976 Langley Researcher profile might have done the best job of capturing Mary Jackson’s spirit and character, calling her a “gentle lady, wife and mother, humanitarian and scientist.” For Mary Jackson, science and service went hand in hand.

Mary Jackson passed away in Hampton on February 11, 2005, at the age of 83. She was preceded in death by her husband, Levi Jackson Sr, and was survived by her son, Levi Jackson Jr, her daughter, Carolyn Marie Lewis and her granddaughter, Wanda D.Jackson.

In 2018 the Salt Lake City School Board declared that Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City would from then on be officially named  Mary W. Jackson Elementary School rather than (as it used to be) after President Andrew Jackson.

NASA CITATION: “In honor and recognition of the ambition and motivation that enabled her career progression from “human computer” to NASA’s first African-American female engineer, and subsequent career supporting the hiring and promotion of other deserving female and minority employees.”

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