Today is the anniversary of the founding of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Incorporated, the first Greek-letter organization for African-American women. In the fall of 2016, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, was published. A movie based on the book opened in early 2017 to rave reviews.
The movie features three National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematicians – Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, and Mary Winston Jackson. All three are members of Alpha Kappa Alpha. In the days before 3×5 size calculators, these women were “computers who wore skirts,” using slide rules with pencil and paper calculations. During the era of Jim Crow laws, they worked in segregated conditions at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. They had a front seat at the start of the Space Race and they contributed greatly to the success of the early missions including Alan Shepard’s trip into space and launch into orbit of John Glenn. Their calculations had to be perfect; there was no room for error.
Of the three women, Johnson is the only one able to bask in the glory afforded by the film. She is 98 years old. Johnson is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson. Johnson is a Diamond member of the Lambda Omega Chapter (Newport News, VA) of Alpha Kappa Alpha. She was born on August 26, 1918 and she graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State College in 1937. A year later, in 1938, she was one of three black graduate students admitted to West Virginia University, and the only female among the three. She taught math for several years, one of the only career paths open to her, until 1953 when she was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (today it is NASA). She retired in 1983. In 2015, she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. On May 5, 2016, the 55th anniversary of Shepard’s quick trip into space, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was dedicated at Langley Research Center.
Shetterly, the author of the book, in an interview on Jezebel.com, remembered being about 12 years old when she attended an event for young community women, sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha. Shetterly’s mother belonged to Johnson’s AKA chapter. Shetterly said of Johnson, “I believe she was the president of the sorority of the time. I have image of her that’s this very impressive woman in a pantsuit.”
Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, who is portrayed by Octavia Spencer, became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1926 while she was a student at Wilberforce University. She graduated in 1929 and taught high school mathematics until 1943, when she was hired as a mathematician at Langley Field. She retired in 1971. Vaughn died in 2008 at the age of 98.
Mary Winston Jackson graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 and taught mathematics before being hired by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1943. In the film she is portrayed by Janelle Monáe. Jackson retired from NASA in 1985. She, too, was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. In 2005, she died at the age of 83.
Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded on January 15, 1908 by nine young female Howard University students. They were led by the vision of Ethel Hedgeman (Lyle); she had spent several months sharing her idea with her friends. During this time, she was dating her future husband, George Lyle, a charter member of the Beta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.
After choosing a name for their sorority, the nine women wrote a constitution and a motto. Additionally, they chose salmon pink and apple green as the sorority’s colors and ivy as its symbol. A group of seven sophomore women were invited to become members. They did not partake in an initiation ceremony and all 16 women are considered founders. The first “Ivy Week” took place in May 1909 and ivy was planted at Howard University’s Miner Hall. On January 29, 1913, Alpha Kappa Alpha was incorporated.
© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2017. All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/