Photo credit: NASA Langley
Recently, the Salt Lake City School Board unanimously voted to rename Jackson Elementary School after Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer.
You may remember Mary Jackson’s name as she was one of the lead women portrayed in the historic 2016 box office film, ‘Hidden Figures.’ The school was originally named for Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. However, disdain with his history has caused much debate over the years in the Salt Lake City community as to whether or not the school should bear the name of such a man. His history of slave ownership, forced removal of Native Americans from ancestral land resulting in “The Trail of Tears,” and overall racist behavior seemed to be the heaviest of charges against the legacy of Andrew Jackson. According to the “Salt Lake Tribune,” the resounding vote was met with a standing ovation from the teachers, parents, students, and other community members present.
Jackson was a Hampton, Virginia native who worked as a teacher, receptionist, and secretary for the Army prior to being employed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1951. She was a part of a group known as the West Area Computing Unit, which was a segregated group of African American women who spent hours performing math calculations and trajectories by hand to aid in some of the early U.S. space missions. These women played a vital role in the accuracy and preparation for the country’s earliest space explorations.
Photo credit: NASA Langley
Two years into her work as a “human computer,” a NASA engineer selected Jackson to help him work on a wind tunnel project. Given Jackson’s meaningful contributions to the work, he suggested that she train to become an engineer. In order to do so, she needed to complete math and physics courses offered by The University of Virginia at the all-white Hampton High School. Jackson successfully petitioned the city of Hampton to allow her to take the evening courses and was promoted to a certified engineer in 1958. She went on to complete 34 years of service with NASA and retired in 1985.
In addition to her trailblazing work with NASA, Jackson was also heavily involved with community initiatives to encourage Black youth to be interested in STEM subjects. As about 85% of Jackson Elementary students are students of color, the school’s principal, Jana Edward, shared that “the renaming of the school was a very unifying event. We are now recognized as the only school named after a (Black) woman in Salt Lake District…also it means we get to recognize a woman who became the first Black female NASA engineer.”
The board will be requesting a display to honor Jackson onsite at the school in addition to a renaming ceremony later this year. Jackson’s family will be invited to attend the ceremony and the board is hopeful that they will be able to help them to celebrate this momentous occasion.