These artifacts aren’t in the African American history museum. But they still have a story to tell
Our “Historically Black” Tumblr and podcast series is inspired by our reader’s objects, and the remarkable stories behind them
To celebrate the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Washington Post wanted to create something that could reach people beyond the National Mall, beyond Washington and beyond museum world.
We asked readers to help us build a pop-up virtual museum of the items, photos, heirlooms and stories that represent what black history means to them. People submitted dozens of stories to our Historically Black Tumblr. We received incredible artifacts, like photos of poll tax receipts, newspaper articles, family reunions, vintage portraits, moments from history and more.
Along with our fellow Washington Post journalists Tauhid Chappell, Veronica Toney, Jessica Stahl, and in partnership with APM Reports, we’re now producing out some of the most fascinating stories we received in an eight-episode podcast series also called Historically Black. You can subscribe on iTunes here. Each episode explores the history and background of a particular object, talking to the person who submitted it, experts on the subject and more.
Our first episode, “NASA’s Human Computers, tells the story behind the vintage photograph of Miriam Mann, submitted by Duchess Harris. Tanya Sichynsky tells her story below:
During World War II, Duchess’s grandmother Miriam was hired as one of NASA’s first black “human computers,” and her work was essential in the early years of space exploration. The story of black female computers at NASA will get the Hollywood treatment this January with a film called “Hidden Figures,” starring Taraji P. Henson.
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’s 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.
There’s more stories like Miriam Mann’s to come in later episodes of Historically Black. If you subscribe, you’ll soon learn about James McKissic’s copy of his great-great grandfather’s bill of sale, and other artifacts submitted to us.
You can also submit your own story to our Tumblr! Learn more about how to be part of Historically Black.