Prologue–Chapter 5

A group of extraordinarily talented African-American women help NASA achieve some of its greatest successes, even as they face discrimination and oppression.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. discourse
    an extended communication dealing with some particular topic
    My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbors we’d bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a sixty-six-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.
  2. launch
    the act of propelling with force
    As a callow eighteen-year-old leaving for college, I’d seen my hometown as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be.
  3. attenuate
    become weaker, in strength, value, or magnitude
    But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the city’s hold on my identity, and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me.
  4. sorority
    a social club for female undergraduates
    Supersonics experts held leadership positions in my mother’s sorority, and electrical engineers sat on the board of my parents’ college alumni associations.
  5. chutzpah
    unbelievable gall; insolence; audacity
    Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon.
  6. eponymous
    relating to a name derived from a person
    Mercury Boulevard no longer conjures images of the eponymous mission that shot the first Americans beyond the atmosphere, and each day the memory of Virgil Grissom fades away from the bridge that bears his name.
  7. computer
    an expert at calculation
    “This establishment has urgent need for approximately 100 Junior Physicists and Mathematicians, 100 Assistant Computers, 75 Minor Laboratory Apprentices, 125 Helper Trainees, 50 Stenographers and Typists,” exclaimed the missive.
  8. disseminate
    cause to become widely known
    The two installations had grown up together, the air base devoted to the development of America’s military air-power capability, the laboratory a civilian agency charged with advancing the scientific understanding of aeronautics and disseminating its findings to the military and private industry.
  9. shibboleth
    a favorite saying of a sect or political group
    “Victory through air power!” Henry Reid, engineer-in-charge of the Langley laboratory, crooned to his employees, the shibboleth a reminder of the importance of the airplane to the war’s outcome.
  10. analytical
    using or skilled in using reasoning
    Virginia Tucker, Langley’s head computer, ran laps up and down the East Coast searching for coeds with even a modicum of analytical or mechanical skill, hoping for matriculating college students to fill the hundreds of open positions for computers, scientific aides, model makers, laboratory assistants, and yes, even mathematicians.
  11. conscript
    enroll into service compulsorily
    She conscripted what seemed like entire classes of math graduates from her North Carolina alma mater, the Greensboro College for Women, and hunted at Virginia schools like Sweetbriar in Lynchburg and the State Teachers College in Farmville.
  12. lucrative
    producing a sizeable profit
    A. Philip Randolph, the head of the largest black labor union in the country, demanded that Roosevelt open lucrative war jobs to Negro applicants, threatening in the summer of 1941 to bring one hundred thousand Negroes to the nation's capital in protest if the president rebuffed his demand.
  13. inextricably
    in a manner incapable of being disentangled or untied
    Believing that civil rights were inextricably linked to economic rights, Randolph fought tirelessly for the right of Negro Americans to participate fairly in the wealth of the country they had helped build.
  14. desegregation
    incorporation of a formerly excluded group into a community
    With two strokes of a pen—Executive Order 8802, ordering the desegregation of the defense industry, and Executive Order 9346, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor the national project of economic inclusion—Roosevelt primed the pump for a new source of labor to come into the tight production process.
  15. roiling
    (of a liquid) agitated vigorously; in a state of turbulence
    There was no escaping the heat in the summer of 1943, not in the roiling seas of the South Pacific, not in the burning skies over Hamburg and Sicily, and not for the group of Negro women working in Camp Pickett's laundry boiler plant.
  16. elite
    a group or class of persons enjoying superior status
    Her in-laws were mainstays of the town’s Negro elite.
  17. threadbare
    thin and tattered with age
    They reached into their own threadbare purses when the schoolroom kitty fell short.
  18. precocious
    characterized by exceptionally early development
    She took Dorothy as her own daughter and pushed her to succeed, teaching the precocious girl to read before she entered school, which vaulted her ahead two grades.
  19. valedictorian
    the student with the best grades
    Seven years later, Dorothy reaped the reward for her hard work in the form of the valedictorian’s spot and a full-tuition scholarship to Wilberforce University, the country’s oldest private Negro college, in Xenia, Ohio.
  20. propitious
    presenting favorable circumstances
    Dorothy was the kind of young person who filled the Negro race with hope that its future in America would be more propitious than its past.
  21. itinerant
    traveling from place to place to work
    Tall, charismatic, and quick with a smile, Howard Vaughan worked as an itinerant bellman at luxury hotels, going south to Florida in the winter and north to upstate New York and Vermont in the summer.
  22. enclave
    an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct
    It would no sooner have occurred to her that a place with so baroque a name as the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory would solicit an application from Negro women than that the white women at the college across the street would beckon her through the front doors of their manicured enclave.
  23. replete
    filled to satisfaction with food or drink
    Accustomed to their mother’s long workdays and their father’s extended absences, they missed Dorothy, but her departure didn’t interrupt their high-spirited lives replete with family, friends, and school.
  24. testament
    strong evidence for something
    The Colemans’ daughter Katherine was one of them, a testament to both her academic talent and a strength of character that could stand up to the isolation and scrutiny that came along with being a black student on the front lines of desegregation.
  25. furlough
    a temporary leave of absence from military duty
    It was disguised as a temporary furlough from her life as a teacher, a stint expected to end and deposit her back in the familiarity of Farmville when her country’s long and bloody conflict was over.
  26. happenstance
    an accidental event that seems to have been arranged
    The Colemans’ youngest daughter would eventually find the same second chance years in the future, following Dorothy Vaughan down the road to Newport News, turning the happenstance of a meeting during the Greenbrier summer into something that looked a lot more like destiny.
  27. mosaic
    a pattern resembling small pieces of colored stone or glass
    The American mosaic was on full display, youngsters barely over the threshold of adolescence and men in the sinewy prime of manhood, fresh from the nation's cities, small towns, and countrysides, pooling in the war towns like summer rain.
  28. gauntlet
    a form of punishment with two lines of men facing each other
    Managing the multitudes in such a limited space would have been difficult under the best of circumstances, but the convoluted Jim Crow transportation laws turned the commute into a gauntlet for all riders.
  29. sedition
    an illegal action inciting resistance to lawful authority
    Black newspapers—unabashedly partisan on issues pertaining to the Negro—refused to censor themselves, despite the federal government’s threat to level sedition charges against them.
  30. minority
    a group of people who differ from a larger group
    What did this war mean for “America's tenth man,” the one in ten citizens who were part of the country’s largest minority group?
  31. provenance
    where something originated or was nurtured
    Beginning in the Administration Building, with a single wind tunnel, the lab grew until space limits pushed it to expand to the west onto several large properties tracing their provenance to colonial-era plantations.
  32. cabal
    a clique that seeks power usually through intrigue
    The city’s clerk of courts, Harry Holt, working with a cabal including oyster magnate Frank Darling, whose company, J. S. Darling and Son, was the world’s third largest oyster packer, endeavored to clandestinely purchase parcels that were once the homesteads of wealthy Virginians, including George Wythe.
  33. junket
    a trip taken by an official at public expense
    But just one month before Dorothy’s trip from Farmville, Air Scoop covered Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox’s one-day junket to the laboratory.
  34. melange
    a motley assortment of things
    Who would have thought that such a melange of black and white, male and female, blue-collar and white-collar workers, those who worked with their hands and those who worked with numbers, was actually possible?
  35. phlegmatic
    showing little emotion
    Employees who never saw one another, who worked in different groups or buildings, might run into one another in the cafeteria, catch a glimpse of Henry Reid or the NACA’s phlegmatic secretary, John Victory, in town for a visit, or maybe get an earful of salty language from John Stack, who oversaw the wind tunnels involved in high-speed research.
  36. proscribe
    command against
    It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion.
  37. presage
    indicate by signs
    It didn’t presage the kind of racial violence that could spring out of nowhere, striking even the most economically secure Negroes like kerosene poured on a smoldering ember.
  38. meritocracy
    a social system in which power goes to superior intellects
    But in the cafeteria, and in the bathrooms designated for colored girls, the signs were a reminder that even within the meritocracy of the US Civil Service, even after Executive Order 8802, some were more equal than others.
  39. anodyne
    capable of relieving pain
    Even the group’s anodyne title was both descriptive and a little deceptive, allowing the laboratory to comply with the Fair Employment Act—West Computing was simply a functional description on the organizational chart—while simultaneously appeasing the Commonwealth of Virginia's discriminatory separate-but-equal statutes.
  40. banal
    repeated too often; overfamiliar through overuse
    But what hope had the West Computers of making a federal case out of something so banal as a cafeteria sign?
  41. progressive
    favoring or promoting reform, often by government action
    Many local whites considered MacLean distastefully progressive, dangerous even, with his strident calls to boost Negro participation in the war.
  42. laboratory
    a workplace for the conduct of scientific research
    Henry Reid, the engineer in charge of the Langley laboratory, was anything but a firebrand.
  43. pariah
    a person who is rejected from society or home
    Head computer Margery Hannah went out of her way to treat the West Area women as equals, and had even invited some of them to work-related social affairs at her apartment. This was nearly unheard of, and made Marge a pariah as far as some white colleagues were concerned.
  44. perception
    a way of conceiving something
    They corrected each other's work and policed their ranks like soldiers against tardiness, sloppy appearance, and the perception of loose morals.
  45. stereotype
    a conventional or formulaic conception or image
    They warded off the negative stereotypes that haunted Negroes like shadows, using tough love to protect both the errant individual and the group from her failings.
Created on February 10, 2017 (updated April 9, 2019)

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