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Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) was a mathematician and human computer for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She was the first Black manager in NASA history, having served nearly a decade as head of the West Area Computing unit.

Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the child of Leonard and Anne Johnson. When she was two years old her mother died, and her father soon remarried. In 1918, the family relocated to Morgantown, where Vaughan’s father got a job as a waiter, and her stepmother Susan worked as a housekeeper.

Vaughan’s intelligence was evident from an early age. Before she started school, her stepmother had taught her to read. Upon arriving in Morgantown, she enrolled in the local segregated grade school as a fourth grader, but was soon moved up to fifth grade. In 1921, Vaughan completed the eighth grade and, at age 11, became a freshman at Beechurst High School, where she was elected class president. In 1924, she served as president of the school’s Literary Society and as secretary of the Athletic Association. The next year, at age 15, Vaughan graduated from Beechurst High School at the top of her class.

In addition to excelling academically, Vaughan was active in her church. Beginning in 1920, she was the pianist for five years at Beechurst Avenue’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. In 1922, she was a delegate to the state A.M.E. Sunday School convention in Charleston and also attended the A.M.E. Jr. Missionary Society meeting in Buckhannon. She attended the 1924 A.M.E. Jr. Missionary Society meeting in Wheeling and was a delegate to the 1925 state A.M.E. Sunday School convention in Williamson, where she was awarded the convention’s first scholarship to Ohio’s Wilberforce University.

After graduating from Wilberforce with degrees in math and education, Vaughan taught high school in Illinois and North Carolina, and in Farmville, Virginia. In Farmville, she met her husband, Howard Vaughan, who was an itinerant bellhop at various resorts, including West Virginia’s Greenbrier. In 1943, Dorothy Vaughan took a job as a mathematician at NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now Langley Research Center) in Hampton, Virginia. Since NACA was segregated at the time, she was assigned to the West Area Computing unit, comprised entirely of Black women except for the supervisors. In 1949, Vaughan was named manager of the unit, the first Black person to hold a supervisory position at NACA. In 1953, Vaughan crossed paths with another notable West Virginian when Katherine Johnson was hired to work in West Area Computing. Vaughan continued to manage that unit until 1958.

In 1958, NACA became NASA, and integrated all its facilities and work units. Vaughan was assigned to the Analysis and Computation Division, where she became a pioneer programmer of FORTRAN, an important early computing language. She also made key contributions to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program, a vital part of the early space program. She retired from NASA in 1971. Vaughan’s and Johnson’s lives and careers were detailed in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. In the film adaptation of Shetterly’s book, Vaughan is portrayed by actress Octavia Spencer.

Vaughan died at age 98, and is buried at Hampton Memorial Gardens in Hampton, Virginia. Her father and stepmother are buried at East Oak Grove Cemetery in Monongalia County. In the early 2020s, some West Virginia legislators unsuccessfully attempted to pass the Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan Fair Pay Act to close the gender pay gap.

This Article was written by Jeffrey Webb

Last Revised on May 02, 2023


Sources

Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. New York: Morrow, 2016.

Fox, Dewey W. "A Brief Sketch of the Life of Miss Dorothy L. Johnson," West Virginia African Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Convention, 1926.

Fleischauer, Barbara Evans. Reclaim Dorothy Johnson Vaughan--Pass the Fair Pay Act. The Dominion Post, March 6, 2021.

Cite This Article

Webb, Jeffrey "Dorothy Vaughan." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 02 May 2023. Web. 25 July 2024.

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