Celebrating Women: Mary Jackson’s journey to NASA’s first black female engineer


HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — 10 On Your Side celebrates one of NASA’s hidden figures Mary W. Jackson, during this Women’s History Month.

Jackson is a Hampton woman who broke down barriers for both women and minorities by becoming NASA’s first, black woman engineer in 1958.

Jackson started in a segregated unit as a “human computer” alongside mathematician Katherine Johnson — with Dorothy Vaughan as their supervisor.

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The three women are featured in the movie “Hidden Figures” for their significant contributions to the space race.

Her granddaughter Wanda Jackson says her impact makes her feel proud. Wanda says the movie accurately portrays her grandmom and she credits Vaughan for seeing the potential in the group. 

“If it wasn’t for Dorothy Vaughan, people really wouldn’t know who ‘hidden figures’ were because she actually sent the women on their assignments,” explained Wanda. “She had the first vision because she knew what the women in that computer class [or computer women] were capable of.”

Facing both racism and sexism, Jackson had to take graduate-level classes to advance to become the agencies first black female engineer.

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After nearly two decades as an engineer — she took a demotion in 1979 to become a women’s program manager — and open doors for even more women at NASA.

Jackson died in 2005 but her legacy lives on as she is honored all over the country. 

Her granddaughter, Wanda, says her impact makes her feel proud.

“Now looking back to hear the stories from different people that she touched their lives,” Jackson said, “To hear them come back and say, ‘If it wasn’t for Mrs Jackson, I wouldn’t be where I was. I wouldn’t be an engineer.’ And it’s not just students. She has family members. Her nephews she helped get through school and helped them become engineers.”

Over the years, Wanda’s accepted awards for her grandma after she passed away in 2005.

On March 27, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will honor her and the women in the “Hidden Figures” movie at the U.S Capitol. The women will receive honors for their outstanding contributions to the space program, during the annual Women’s History Month reception.

This is an honor, Jackson’s family tells 10 On Your Side, they are excited to receive on her behalf.

Her family says they wish she could see just how many people she influenced.

“At least she did get recognized. She finally got her awards. With all of this Grandma did go down in history. I will say that. It was worth it. So, even if she never makes the history books. In our hearts and going forward, she did make history,” said Wanda.

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