Mary Winston-Jackson Biography

Scientist, Mathematician(1921–2005)
Mathematician Mary Winston-Jackson is one of a small group of African American women who worked as aeronautical engineers, called "human computers," at NASA during the Space Age.

Synopsis

Born in 1921, Mary Winston-Jackson came of age during segregation in the United States. After excelling in her academic work and graduating with honors, she took a number of jobs including bookkeeper, receptionist and teacher before embarking on her long career in the aerospace industry. Winston-Jackson's skills at math and science propelled the young mathematician/engineer, along with a handful of other African American women, to groundbreaking roles at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), during the Space Age. Over the course of her 30 year career at these institutions, she also challenged discrimination in the workplace and helped other women and minorities secure promotions and career advancement, as well as bringing their accomplishments to the attention of upper management. Winston-Jackson died in February 2005 at the age of 83. The story of her life at NASA is depicted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

Early Years

Mary Winston-Jackson was born on April 9, 1921, in Hampton, Virginia, the daughter of Ella and Frank Winston. She attended Hampton’s all-black schools and graduated with high honors from George P. Phenix Training School in 1937. Five years later, she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science from Hampton Institute.

Taking her Talents to Work

For a few years after college, Mary Winston-Jackson worked a series of jobs from being a teacher to bookkeeper and receptionist. Then in 1951, she found employment at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor agency to NASA) in Langley, Virginia. She worked at the West Computers section as a research mathematician, or what was called a “human computer” at the time. In 1953, she moved to the Compressibility Research Division of NACA.

Working through Segregation

Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 prohibited discrimination in the defense industry, Virginia state law still enforced segregation in the workplace. All work facilities had separate restrooms and cafeterias designated “white” or “colored.” In the company cafeteria, whites could select their food choices and sit in a lunch room. Blacks had to make their food requests to a cafeteria attendant and then go back to their desks and eat. Jackson considered it an indignity to be treated less-than equal to her white colleagues.

Standing her Ground

After several months of “separate and unequal” accommodations, Mary Winston-Jackson had had enough. She considered resigning, but a chance encounter with a supervisor changed her mind. After hearing her complaints, he invited her to work for him and she accepted. He quickly saw her potential and encouraged her to take engineering classes. In time, she was promoted to aeronautical engineer and developed expertise working with wind tunnels and analyzing data on aircraft flight experiments.

Giving Back by Helping Others

By 1978, Mary Winston-Jackson changed positions to be a human resources administrator. She served as both the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and as the Affirmative Action Program Manager. From then until her retirement in 1985, she helped other women and minorities advance their careers, advising them to study and take extra courses to increase their chances for promotion.

Later Years

During her career Mary Winston-Jackson served on many organizations’ boards and committees including the Girl Scouts of America and was honored by many charitable organizations for her leadership and service. Jackson died at age 83 on February 11, 2005, at Riverside Convalescent Home in Hampton, Virginia.

In 2016, the story of Winston-Jackson and her colleagues Katherine G. Johnson and Dorothy Johnson Vaughan's time at NASA, calculating flight trajectories for project Mercury and the Apollo program in the 1960s, is depicted in the film Hidden Figures. Janelle Monáe portrays Winston-Jackson in the film. 

Mary Winston Jackson photo

(Photo: NASA)

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