Black Women Who Slayed History: Dorothy Vaughan

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting the black woman who helped make our world what it is today. Today, we honor Dorothy Vaughan.

If you’ve already seen the Academy Award-nominated movie Hidden Figures, you probably know all about Dorthy Vaughan. But if you haven’t, let us enlighten you.

Dorothy Vaughan, who’s played by Octavia Spencer in the film, was one of the women who helped win the space race behind the scenes. In fact, she was one of the first African-American NASA managers.

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Dorothy attended college — an impressive accomplishment for African-American women at the time — and was planning on attending graduate school when The Great Depression hit. Due to financial issues in her family, Dorothy halted her graduate school plans and became a math teacher.

It was at the school she taught at in Farmville, Virginia, where she saw a job posted in search of women to fill mathematical jobs relating to airplanes. Dorothy applied and was accepting to this position in 1943, which she perceived as being a temporary job during the war. World War II was at its height during this time, hence the availability of traditionally male-dominated roles for females.

Another reason why Dorothy was considered for the job was due to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry. But there was still discrimination, and Dorothy’s first job was in an all African-American unit, where they used separate bathrooms and dining areas.

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Eventually, Dorothy was promoted to become one of NACA’s (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) first black supervisors, and one of the few women supervisor. But it took her nearly two years to officially be recognized as the section head, even though she was doing all the work of the former section head, a white woman who had unexpectedly passed.

During her time at NACA, Dorothy consistently advocated for the women of her unit, as well as other white female co-workers of hers who desired a pay raise or recognition.  When NACA transitioned to NASA in 1958, Dorothy kept on, but her unit was abolished and she was moved to another race and gender divided division.

Dorothy ultimately retired from NASA in 1971, but her legacy lives on.

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