The Struggles of Early Black Female Scientists

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The upcoming movie about Black women scientists working for NASA in its early years is gaining a lot of buzz but their story is no surprise to a former Black female computer.

Yvonne Ridley worked as a computer for NACA in the 1940s and 50s. (Courtesy Photo- Helen Ridley)
Yvonne Ridley worked as a computer for NACA in the 1940s and 50s. (Courtesy Photo- Helen Ridley)

The Fox 2000 Chernin Entertainment movie “Hidden Figures” is the story of three Black women who played vital, yet obscure, roles in NASA’s space program mission in the 1960s. The movie stars “Empire” actress Taraji B. Henson, plus actresses Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae and is set to debut on Christmas Day but Yvonne Ridley knows what it’s all about.

Ridley worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) from 1943-1957 at Langley Air Force Base in the Hampton-Newport News, Va. area. Ridley was one of the few Blacks and in practically all cases, the only Black female working in a professional capacity as a human computer.

“I don’t like to talk about myself that much,” Ridley, who is 96-years-old and lives in Jacksonville, Fla., with her daughter, Helen, told the AFRO. “Somebody has to know what Black women did at that time and I was working for NACA before those women the movie portrays worked there.”

Before the advent of electronic devices, computers were humans who calculated mathematical equations and calculations by hand. The work of human computers has been credited with advances in science, industry and national defense.

Ridley was the daughter of parents who were educators and knew she loved science as a girl.

“Growing up, I had a father who had me read a lot,” Ridley said. “I entered the first grade at the age of four and I was quickly promoted to the second grade because of what I did in class.”

Ridley attended the famous Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk where college enrollment was encouraged and the school offered classes in French and Mathematics such as Algebra. She went to Virginia Union wanting to major in pre-Med but her mother had other ideas.

“My mother told me that women didn’t go to college to be doctors, they go to find a future doctor to marry,” Ridley said. “I didn’t like that.”

Ridley graduated from Virginia Union in 1941 with a degree in chemistry. After graduation, she attended Howard University studying the chemistry of powder and explosives and then went to Hampton Institute to get a certificate for Engineering Fundamentals.

Ridley graduated in the top five of her 1943 engineering certificate class and got an invitation to seek employment at Langley. While waiting to be interviewed with her classmates, a man stepped into the room and asked for her.

“He then asked me what my last job was,” she said. “I told him that I had been out of college for three years, graduating cum laude, but had been unable to find a job. I told him that I would go daily to The Norfolk Journal and Guide, a Black newspaper, because they allowed me to use their photo engraving lab.

“The man then asked me to explain the photo engraving process to him and I did. He said to me ‘You’ll do, go in there and tell them I sent you.'”

Ridley encountered her first incident with racial prejudice immediately when she entered the employment office and a White woman looked at her with contempt and said “you are being hired as one of those colored computers.”

“She said, ‘You can eat in the cafeteria but the rest of you colored people have to eat in the kitchen,” Ridley said. Ridley said she didn’t eat at the “colored” table because she knew that she was working at a federal facility and those were nondiscriminatory.

During her career at NACA, she worked on computing calculations and developing blueprints for airplanes that would be tested in wind tunnels. After a few years, she went to work on in a section of Langley that was known as X, as in secret projects.

Her work in the X section eventually culminated in the creation of the F-15 jet.

In 1957, Ridley left NACA to move with her family to her husband’s new employer, Virginia State University. Ridley would change careers and get master’s degrees in vocational rehabilitation and clinical psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.

According to statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation in 2015, Black women make up two percent of all professionals in the science and engineering sectors. There are efforts to boost those numbers, with scholarships aimed at Black women at HBCUs and their majority White public and private counterparts.

Groups such as Black Girls Code introduce Black pre-teens and teens to careers in STEM. Ridley said that Black females can achieve in science.

“You can do what you want to do if you work hard,” she said.