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The Changing Role of Race at NASA Langley
In order to understand the changing role of race and diversity at NASA Langley, one must begin with a speech and its moment in history. On November 4, 1943, a rally was being held to stress the importance of Langley’s Aeronautical research during World War II. Fifteen hundred of the facility’s laboratory employees attended to hear the impact of their contributions to America’s fight overseas. Colonel Frank Knox, the Secretary of the Navy, provided the speech. Impassioned by the efforts of the workers at Langley, Knox stated, “You should feel pride in the part you are playing in this war.” He assured “ there is no question that each and every one of you is making at least as great a contribution towards winning the war” as the soldiers themselves. The country had been involved in arguably its greatest contest since its inception. Without the continued efforts of the individuals present, Knox implied that America’s Aircraft would have been surpassed by the competition. World War II had become a battle “to preserve the liberties and freedoms for which the pioneers gave their lives.” In essence, the war had become a “battle to preserve our way of life.”  On this day, they were all patriots in the defense of the American dream.
While gathered at the rally, the civil servants of Hampton’s aeronautical research facility were organized and photographed etching the moment into history. Standing side by side, both men and women of various backgrounds and positions were captured. Dressed in the customary work fashions of the time, the various poses and expressions seemed to demonstrate the personality of each individual. Yet, within this image, a glimpse of the changes within the American workforce appeared present. With the country at war, steady progress was underway. For the African Americans workers present, progress would be obtained over time. While seemingly small in number, the group of African Americans dispersed throughout the image symbolized the growing changes within the organization. Though steady, the changing role of African Americans at NASA Langley was representative of America’s movement towards diversity. The image of those in attendance captured both Langley’s past and its movement toward a brighter future. The war not only became a battle to maintain American freedoms but it also became apart of a larger effort in the expansion of those freedoms to all American citizens as envisioned by the founding fathers.
Historically, the aeronautical research conducted at NASA Langley has contributed to the advancement of the sciences and the development of America’s thriving space program. However, while the facility’s rich history of research has been acknowledged with great esteem, the opportunities given during times of great social change within American culture cannot be disregarded. Diversity, progress, and opportunity are values that are interwoven within the fabric of Langley research. From President Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson, over a span of 30 years, these values were developed and included into Langley’s work environment. Thus, of its many contributions, the changing role of race and gender at NASA Langley research has mirrored advancements within American culture and society.
[top] Pre-World War II 1920-1939
Kitchen servers in 1st Cafeteria 587
Cafeteria on 2nd Floor 587
In the years preceding America’s involvement in World War II, the United States civil service contained elements of uniformity. Before 1941, white males comprised a majority of the government’s workforce. Certain jobs were considered off limits to women because they were considered physically unfit.  African American employment consisted of lower level positions of service and labor.  Limitations to minority employment could be attributed to discriminatory employment practices and educational limitations. 
At Langley, earlier positions for African American males resembled the civil service employment trends of the period. Since the 1920’s, records and photographs seemed to indicate a relatively small group of African American males working within the facility. In general, positions dealt with general assistance and services to others. Such positions were subject to change. Due to the facility’s smaller size during the 20’s and 30’s, it seems plausible to assume that many of the earlier employees’ of lower leveled positions were placed in areas of need. James Kirkpatrick and Grant “Preacher” Hickson were notable African American employees that experienced such changes. James Kirkpatrick arrived at Langley on October 16, 1920. Before his service at Langley, he served for the Navy as a fireman and oiler during World War I. When he arrived at Langley, Kirkpatrick was employed at the east machine shop as a fireman. However, after a year of service, he was made a “general helper.” Finally, by 1927, he was changed to a Machinist helper and remained there for the next 23 years.” For Grant “Preacher” Hickson a similar path of movement appeared. Hickson arrived at Langley in 1926. In desperate need of job, Hickson found one at Langley “pushing a wheelbarrow and landscaping” at 3 dollars a day. During his 23-year career, he moved from landscaping to an “air plane mechanic’s helper.”  In both instances, movement within the facility to fill areas of need was expected contributing to each individual’s ability to maintain employment.
[top] The War Years 1941-1946
As the country prepared itself for War, major changes to the uniform nature of the civil service began to take place. By 1941, with the rapid expansion the country’s defense industries and10 million civilians committed to the armed forces, the prewar employment policies had become inadequate. Changes needed to be made to sustain the viability of the country’s civil service. In addition to the increased demand for workers, political pressures began to mount within the country. Racial discrimination from America’s war industries limited employment opportunities for the country’s minority populations. Lead by civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph, in January 1941, a march on Washington was proposed to protest discriminatory policies within the country’s war industries and Armed forces. Fearing the negative outcome of internal disunity within America’s populace during a time of war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on equal employment to subdue potential protests. Executive Order 8802 established a Committee on Fair Employment Practice “to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination.”  This particular executive order set an instrumental precedent toward continued diversification and progress within government employment symbolizing a need for change. Langley, like many other government facilities, would attempt to adjust to meet the President’s expectations.
Within the year of the president’s order, a noticeable impact was seen within the area and at Langley. In the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a newspaper dedicated to serving Virginia’s African American community, headlines denoted that “labor history was made” on September 20, 1941. Hampton’s Isaac Johnson, a “local contractor and labor leader,” was awarded a contract “to make alterations and additions to the propeller research tunnel office Langley Field laboratories.”  With the lowest bid of $5,135, Johnson became the “third Negro Contractor on the peninsula to be awarded” a contract on defense projects. The article assured “other race contractors will share in the undertaking.”
Such an event undoubtedly contributed to the changing atmosphere of Langley. In addition to the increased amount opportunities being offered to local minority contractors, funding and expansion would also play a major role in Langley’s shifting atmosphere. From 1941-1947, fiscal reports denoted a dramatic increase in funding.  Such funds were used for various research projects, buildings, and employment opportunities.
A number of job openings at Langley began to appear during this period. Announced by Executive Secretary of the board of civil service examiners T. Melvin Butler, positions were posted in the Norfolk Journal and Guide targeting the African American community. In the newspaper, positions were labor and service intensive and included: labor group leader, painters, truck drivers, and helpers of all types.  A section of female workers known as the “computers” began to expand during this time. Beginning in 1935, these computers were active in assisting engineers with calculations and work projects. Educational requirements seemed to range between high school and college. A number of African American women became apart of this group adding a source of employment for minorities. Yet, the importance of African American computers should not be based on a purely numerical basis. African American computers marked the beginning of change in employment from an ideological standpoint. Whereas African American men were recruited to fill positions of labor and service, African American women were recruited largely based on educational qualifications and abilities. A number of the African American computers were college educated with degrees from prominent historically black institutions like Hampton Institute. Early computers such as Eunice Smith, Katherine Peddrew, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and later Christine Darden would pave the way for future employees by surpassing barriers that had deterred many. The educational competency and qualifications demonstrated by the earlier African American computers served as a potential area of growth for minority employment. At a research facility specializing in aeronautics, both skilled and unskilled labor positions offered a limited avenue for sustained growth. Langley would continue to move toward professional workers. Such a movement made education qualifications essential for future job openings and promotions.
While the president’s executive order attempted to provide equal opportunity to all minorities seeking employment, Virginia’s Jim Crow laws were still in effect. During the increased funding of the WWII era, the portion of the facility known as the West Area would be built, providing employment opportunities for a large number of African Americans. Most notably, the African American female computers appeared to be focused within the west machine shop. The idea that separated facilities were inherently equal was fundamental within the Jim Crow philosophy. African American employees were expected to use segregated accommodations. At Langley, segregated accommodations included restrooms, workrooms, and cafeterias. For the computers, integration was used only when the workload became too heavy.  However, though segregation within the workplace mirrored the social norms of the time, changes within American society were on the horizon.
West Area Cafeteria (1227)
[top] Cold War Era 1947-1959
1949 Presentation of NACA Service Emblems
Victory in WWII brought about a movement to return the country’s employment back to the pre-war period. Congress vehemently opposed the idea of equal employment and FDR’s committee of fair employment leading to its end in 1946. With the soldiers returning, women and minorities were expected to return to their previous positions within the country’s social order. However, President Truman and President Eisenhower attempted to advance the civil rights gains made by Roosevelt’s administration. Though not as dramatic as the WWII period, from 1946-1961 progress continued to be made. After several violent acts committed against many African American veterans in the south, President Truman created a committee on Civil Rights. The committee investigated the impact southern discrimination had on African American communities across the country. Its discoveries were published in a study titled To Secure these Rights. Disturbed by the report’s findings, Truman made a number of efforts to advance equality against the will of congress. Such efforts included banning discrimination within the armed forces, establishing a Fair employment board, and a creating a committee on government contracts. Eisenhower maintained and improved upon the successes of Truman by adding a presidential Committee on Government Employment Policy. Continued support from President Truman and Eisenhower helped to maintain the movement toward equality. Interestingly, the most important changes during this period came from the government’s judicial branch. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and groups like the NAACP were influential in the ignition of the civil rights movement during this period. In the historic case of Brown v. Board (1954), the Jim Crow doctrine of separate but equal was ruled unconstitutional setting a precedent for integration. Schools were expected desegregate with deliberate speed. In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd’s Southern Manifesto became the backbone to the massive resistance movement with Virginia gaining notoriety in its efforts to remain segregated.
At Langley, during the fifties, the Cold War brought an underlying competitive nature to the facility. With Russian claims of air supremacy, Executive Secretary John F. Victory disagreed with such claims and assured the public that “we still have supremacy in the air because of superior performance and military effectiveness.” Such claims reinforced the need for continued aeronautical research  Langley Research would remain at the forefront in support of Victory’s public assurances. Langley had expanded into a“100 million dollar research facility.”  Near the end of the decade on July 29 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act establishing NASA. The battle for supremacy would continue in space.
In terms of employment opportunities, minority job assignments appeared to remain constant. African American men comprised a large number of labor and service positions and African American women were recruited to assist engineers as computers. In 1953, the influential Katherine Johnson would be employed at the facility. In addition, Thomas A. Byrdsong became one of the earliest African American engineers during the 50’s as well contributing many papers to the facility. In Langley’s Air Scoop, many of the African Americans men hired during the center’s earlier years were recognized for their years of faithful service. An example of this can be seen with James Luster whom received his 30-year service award in labor having “never taken a day of sick leave.”(Air Scoop, 1957) Even in the Jim Crow south, earlier efforts to expand the appeal into the minority community seemed to exist. Though seemingly minor, high school field trips from historically black Huntington High school and teaching conventions held within the African American community seemed to denote the beginning of a growing trend.   While the fifties brought about an attempted return to the previous lifestyles that preceded WWII and a heated competition with the Soviet Union, minority gains though subtle were quite significant. However, the gains made during the next decade would be outright momentous. (Insert Service Emblem Photo)
[top] Civil Rights Era 1961-1969
On June 11, 1963, after the refusal of two African American students into the University of Alabama, President John F. Kennedy issued a rare televised address discussing the perils continued discrimination posed to the foundation of the country. After only two years in office, the President was faced with a civil rights movement that had reached new levels of intensity. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to civil rights activism was met with extreme forms of brutality in the south. Those who marched in the name of freedom and equality risked their livelihood. The president was forced to use federal troops to protect students as they tried to integrate. With the political stakes reaching an all time high, the president needed to broadcast his concerns. In a solemn tone, the President Kennedy stated, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” He promised, “A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change a peaceful one.” Discrimination and disenfranchisement in all facets of society had become “a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for.”
President Kennedy’s speech became apart of a larger plan to promote the passage of civil rights legislation. The time to address centuries old challenges to American freedom for all citizens had come. Sadly, President Kennedy would not be able to see the culmination of his efforts as president in the fight for civil rights and equal opportunity. In his attempt to regain southern support, he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. With the country mournful over the loss of its leader, President Lyndon B. Johnson would rally congressional support passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This particular legislation would effectively reach a milestone that many had died in the struggle to obtain. Within the legislation, discrimination and segregation based on race, gender, and religious belief were to be outlawed across the country. Affirmative actions were needed to reinforce the vision of such an ambitious act.
The major political events outside of Langley reached the facility quite swiftly. By 1965, in the Langley Researcher, an acknowledgement of the importance an Affirmative Action Plan was issued. Personnel Officer Charles F. Bennet stated, “Our responsibility, both as Federal employees and as individual citizens is to insure that equality of opportunity is not just a promise but a fact.” Bennet concluded, “In developing this plan, we have set our sights on new areas of recruitment and training, as well as improvements in community relations.” While Bennet’s words expressed a vision for the future, the years that followed demonstrated the merit within his words.
A noticeable difference in involvement within the surrounding community and the diversification of recruitment efforts seemed undeniable. Subtleties that had defined earlier decades were replaced with explicit actions of outreach. In terms of recruitment, historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) appeared to become a focus for targeting minority candidates. Langley research conducted rap sessions with regional HBCU’s along the east coast exchanging information and discussing ways to improve opportunities for minority candidates. In Virginia, schools that became the focus for such recruitment efforts included Norfolk State, Hampton University, Virginia State, and Virginia Union.  During this time, Christine Darden was recruited from Virginia State’s math department. Yet, recruitment efforts were not the only advances in opportunity. Research grants, scholarships, and apprenticeship programs provided opportunities for minority candidates within Virginia and across the country. Summer youth programs targeted both high school and college students within the area giving students the opportunity to experience Langley’s work conditions for a month during the summer. At Langley, the opportunities provided during this phase demonstrated the need for diversity as a symbol for progress.      (See Researcher News, June 28, page 7)
On July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 made history as astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk the surface of the moon. This historic event has defined the importance of NASA and American ingenuity. The research conducted by the civil servants at NASA Langley proved instrumental in the development of such an achievement in history. Progress was seen overtime through the sacrifices of everyday American citizens. Yet, before the Apollo program, America had faced challenges in regards to the role of race and gender within society. Practices of both segregation and discrimination had limited the opportunity for everyone to obtain prosperity within the workplace. At Langley, such limitations have their place in history. However, over the course time, the limitations inherent in American culture began to weaken calling for change on a massive scale. At this crucial point in history, under great social strife, NASA Langley Research Center became an instrument of opportunity leading the way in the country’s strive for diversification. While a small step within a larger context of a movement generations in the making, the changing role of race at NASA Langley demonstrated a giant leap for American society.
Contributor: Antony Clemons, Old Dominion University, 2011
- ↑ Krislov, Samuel. The Negro in Federal Employment; the Quest for Equal Opportunity. Minneapolis University of Minnesota, 1967
- ↑ “Navy Chief Cites Importance of Research in War Effort.” Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory Bulletin. Issue 29, Vol 2. November 6-12, 1943.
- ↑ Cahn, Frances T. Federal Employees in War and Peace: Selection, Placement and Removal. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1949.
- ↑ "Navy Chief Cites Importance of Research in War Effort." Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory Bulletin. Issue 29, Vol 2. November 6-12, 1943.
- ↑ “Kirk Patrick Retires After Thirty Years” Air Scoop, November 17, 1950. Vol. 9, Issue 45.
- ↑ “Grant Preacher Hickson You’d never guess he’s 98.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide (1921-2003). June 27, 1984.
- ↑ Cahn, Frances T. Federal Employees in War and Peace; Selection, Placement and Removal. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1949.
- ↑ Haynes, S.A.“Race Contractor Wins Government Contract.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide (1921-2003). September 20, 1941.
- ↑ Fiscal Reports 1941-45. Langley Archives: Shelf E12-5 145 Confidential.
- ↑ “Civil Service Jobs Open at Langley Field.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. July 26, 1947.
- ↑ Fiscal Reports 1941-45. Langley Archives: Shelf E12-5 145 Confidential.
- ↑ Golemba, Beverly E. “Human computers : the women in aeronautical research.” Unpublished manuscript, 1994.
- ↑ Krislov, Samuel. The Negro in Federal Employment; the Quest for Equal Opportunity. Minneapolis University of Minnesota, 1967
- ↑ Shloss, Leon. “Russia Said to Have Fastest Fighter Plane.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide (1921-2003). February 18, 1950.
- ↑ Myler, Joseph. “U.S Scientists Seek Goal of Million Miles an Hour.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide (1921-2003). October 17, 1959.
- ↑ “High School Students Visit Langley Field.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. October 20, 1956.
- ↑ “Hampton Teachers Hold Workshop On Problems.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. December 19, 1959.
- ↑ Langley Researcher. Feb 12, 1965.
- ↑ “NASA Has Rap Session With Black Colleges.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. November 24, 1973.
- ↑ Mitchell, Dorothy. “Youth Summer Work Begins At Langley Field.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. July 5, 1969.
- ↑ “Langley Hosts NS Students.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. October 9, 1971.
- ↑ “Apprentice Program Now Open at Langley Center.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. June 24, 1972.
- ↑ “Trainee Program Begun In Engineering, Physics.” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. July 25, 1964.
- ↑ “Assistantship To Mathematics Major” Pro Quest Historical Newspapers: Norfolk Journal and Guide. May 28, 1966.
This is a collection of the early photos during segregation at NACA/NASA.