Biography of Mary Jackson, NASA's First Female Black Engineer

Mary Jackson at work at NASA
Mary Jackson working at NASA's Langley facility in 1980 (Photo: Bob Nye/NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images).

Mary Jackson (April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005) was an aerospace engineer and mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). She became NASA’s first black female engineer and worked to improve hiring practices for women at the administration.

Fast Facts: Mary Jackson

  • Full Name: Mary Winston Jackson
  • Occupation: Aeronautical engineer and mathematician
  • Born: April 9, 1921 in Hampton, Virginia
  • Died: February 11, 2005 in Hampton, Virginia
  • Parents: Frank and Ella Winston
  • Spouse: Levi Jackson Sr.
  • Children: Levi Jackson Jr. and Carolyn Marie Jackson Lewis
  • Education: Hampton University, BA in mathematics and BA in physical science; further graduate training at the University of Virginia

Personal Background

Mary Jackson was the daughter of Ella and Frank Winston, from Hampton, Virginia. As a teenager, she attended the all-black George P. Phenix Training School and graduated with honors. She was then accepted to Hampton University, a private, historically black university in her hometown. Jackson earned dual bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science and graduated in 1942.

For a time, Jackson found only temporary employment and jobs that did not line up fully with her expertise. She worked as a teacher, a bookkeeper, and even as a receptionist at one point. Throughout this time—and, in fact, throughout her life—she also privately tutored high school and college students. In the 1940s, Mary married Levi Jackson. The couple had two children: Levi Jackson Jr. and Carolyn Marie Jackson (later Lewis).

Computing Career

Mary Jackson’s life continued in this pattern for nine years until 1951. That year, she became a clerk at the Office of the Chief Army Field Forces at Fort Monroe, but soon moved to another government job. She was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to be a “human computer” (formally, a research mathematician) in the West Computing group at the organization’s Langley, Virginia facility. For the next two years, she worked under Dorothy Vaughan in the West Computers, a segregated division of black female mathematicians.

Mary Jackson At Work
Mathematician Mary Jackson, the first black woman engineer at NASA poses for a photo at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1977 in Hampton, Virginia.  Bob Nye / NASA / Getty Images

In 1953, she began working for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. The tunnel was a crucial apparatus for research on aeronautical projects and, later, the space program. It functioned by generating winds so fast that they were nearly twice the speed of sound, which was used to study the effects of forces on models.

Czarnecki was impressed by Jackson's work and encouraged her to get the qualifications necessary to be promoted to a full engineer position. However, she faced several obstacles to that goal. There had never been a black female engineer at NACA, and the classes Jackson needed to take in order to qualify weren’t easy to attend. The problem was that the graduate-level math and physics classes she needed to take were offered as night classes through the University of Virginia, but those night classes were held at the nearby Hampton High School, an all-white school.

Jackson had to petition the courts for permission to attend those classes. She was successful and was permitted to finish the courses. In 1958, the same year that NACA became NASA, she was promoted to aerospace engineer, making history as the organization’s first black female engineer.

Groundbreaking Engineer

As an engineer, Jackson remained at the Langley facility, but moved over to work at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division. Her work focused on analyzing data produced from those wind tunnel experiments as well as actual flight experiments. By gaining a better understanding of air flow, her work helped improve aircraft design. She also used her wind tunnel knowledge to help her community: in the 1970s, she worked with young African American children to create a mini version of a wind tunnel.

Over the course of her career, Mary Jackson authored or co-authored twelve different technical papers, many about the results of the wind tunnel experiments. By 1979, she achieved the most senior position possible for a woman in the engineering department, but could not break through to management. Instead of remaining at this level, she agreed to take a demotion in order to work in the Equal Opportunity Specialist department instead.

She received specialized training at NASA headquarters before returning to the Langley facility. Her work focused on helping women, black employees, and other minorities advance in their careers, advising them on how to get promotions and working to highlight those who were particularly high-achieving in their particular fields. During this time in her career, she held multiple titles, including Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and Affirmative Action Program Manager.

In 1985, Mary Jackson retired from NASA at the age of 64. She lived for another 20 years, working in her community and continuing her advocacy and community engagement. Mary Jackson died on February 11, 2005 at the age of 83. In 2016, she was one of three main women profiled in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race and its subsequent movie adaptation, in which she was portrayed by Janelle Monáe.

Sources

  • “Mary Winston-Jackson". Biography, https://www.biography.com/scientist/mary-winston-jackson.
  • Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Morrow & Company, 2016.
  • Shetterly, Margot Lee. “Mary Jackson Biography.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, https://www.nasa.gov/content/mary-jackson-biography.