Their relatives were present at two milestones in black history. These photos show how
Our “Historically Black” podcast features one of NASA’s “human computers” and a man who marched on Washington
Long before “Hidden Figures” was a book or a movie bringing the incredible story of black women at NASA to the mainstream, Miriam Mann’s granddaughter, Duchess Harris, had been studying the life of her grandmother.
Miriam Mann was a “human computer,” one of a small group recruited to work as the first black female mathematicians at NACA — NASA’s predecessor — during World War II. When Harris would share this fact with others, few believed her, and she was inspired to research these computers and their work to get the full history — eventually writing a book on the topic.
It was Harris’s mother who gave her the incredible image of her grandmother — the image Harris submitted to Historically Black — showing Miriam Mann walking to work in 1943, impeccably dressed. “She looks upper-middle class,” Harris says with pride. Through her research and photographs and documents she received from her mother, Harris was able to trace the full story of her grandmother’s participation in this incredible piece of history.
Mann continued her work at NACA, and then NASA, into the 1960s, working on computations for the craft in which John Glenn orbited the earth before she retired.
Miriam Harris: Well, they went to the cafeteria, and over in the corner they had this big, round table with a sign that said, “Colored Computers.” And my mother proceeded to take the sign off the table and bring it home.
Duchess Harris: Really?
Miriam Harris: And my daddy would tell her you’re gonna get fired! She said, “Well, I’m going down fighting.”
The conversation reveals the rich family history behind this one beautiful photograph, and the legacy left behind in the hidden work of NASA’s black female computers.
Miriam Harris: Duchess was a baby sitting on her daddy’s lap, and he said, “She’s gonna watch this man walk on the moon. She won’t remember it but she’s looking at it.” And she was just a few months old. But all of the contributions that these women made — the calculations and things — led up to all of that. Without them, they wouldn’t have got on any place.
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE: NASA’S HUMAN COMPUTERS
The relatively unknown history of these pioneering women is revealed as Duchess and Miriam Harris recall what life was like for one of the first black female mathematicians at NASA, alongside historian commentary and archival sound.
While Duchess Harris had to discover the story behind her grandmother’s role in history, Kamille Washington grew up with the photograph that embodied her father’s contribution — a poster of the 1995 Million Man March.
“That image of the march is in the background of all my childhood memories,” she wrote in her submission to the Historically Black Tumblr. “Any time I was summoned for discipline, it was under the watchful eyes of those million men.”
Her father B.T. Washington attended the march with his brother, looking for a sense of direction, and he found it there. After the march, B.T. changed his career and kept with him two mementos: A copy of the Million Man March pledge and the photograph that hangs in his den.
Kamille was raised with the stories of her father’s participation in the march, but in the “Historically Black” episode inspired by her submission, she and B.T. talk about his recollections of that day and what it inspired for him, revealing facets she hadn’t heard before.
B.T. Washington: I would do all of this. I pledge.
Kamille Washington: You know, Dad, it’s funny for me to hear you read the pledge because I had some awareness of the pledge and I know that you have mentioned it to me before. And I’m sure that I’ve seen copies of it lying around but I don’t think I really understood how deeply that had set with you.
B.T. Washington: Well again I think the biggest impact was recognizing that even outside of the military there were a heck of a lot of very successful black folks. And very articulate black folks, because I was not aware of that, quite frankly. Because I had, I had been brainwashed.
Their conversation reveals the ways in which the Million Man March shaped their lives, emblematic of how it affected black men and black families across the country.
Historian Peniel Joseph, U.T. Austin: One of the most important things about the Million Man March was that it was really an effort to humanize black men. I mean Farrakhan was basically saying that black lives do matter, and that black men and black boys and black teenagers — he was trying to build esteem, and self esteem. … It was an effort to humanize black men and boys, and to empower them.
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE: THE SPIRIT OF THE MILLION MAN MARCH
Discover what it was like to attend the 1995 march through the eyes of a father who was there and the daughter who grew up with his story, as well as historians who explore the march’s impact and legacy.
- Episode 1: How WWII opened doors for one of the first black women at NASA
- Episode 2: The Million Man March changed history — and it transformed this father’s life
- Episode 3: A hunt for his slave ancestor’s original bill of sale unearthed a surprising history
- Episode 4: He went searching for his roots and found the most popular black fiddler in 1920s Missouri
- Episode 5: In photos of ordinary life, James Van Der Zee captured Harlem Renaissance glamour
- Episode 6: What does it mean to be “black enough?” Three women explore their racial identities.
- Episode 7: Her great-great-grandfather was born a slave. Almost 200 years later, she visited the HBCU he built.
- Episode 8: Why it matters if pop culture tells black love stories