Mary Jackson was an American aeronautical engineer and the first Black woman to work for NASA – learn more about this inspirational woman with our handy wiki.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson (1921-2005) was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer. She was the first Black female engineer to work for NASA. Her work, alongside the other women and minorities in her department, proved invaluable to the success of the US space program.

As an African American woman, Jackson faced a great deal of prejudice. Despite this, she managed to excel academically. Her love for science was matched only by her desire to help others. Throughout her career, she worked hard to help other women and minorities improve their standing in the science community and advance their careers. She even volunteered to be demoted to work in a role where she could help others more.

Mary Jackson is remembered today as an important and inspirational figure in the history of women’s rights and the rights of minorities in America. Her story has inspired books and films, and she was recognized by NASA for her contributions after her death in 2005.

The Life of Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson led a fascinating life full of struggle and determination. Throughout years of prejudice and segregation, she rose through the scientific community’s ranks. In addition, she was a committed humanitarian and touched many lives.

The Early years

Mary Winston (Jackson’s last name) was born in Hampton, Virginia, on the 9th of April 1921. Her parents were Ella and Frank Winston. She grew up in Hampton and graduated from the all-Black high school, George P. Phenix High School, with the highest honors, in 1937. Maths was one of her favorite subjects at school, and she enrolled in the Hampton Institute, graduating in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in Maths and Physical Science.

In 1944, Mary Winston married Levi Jackson, a Navy sailor. The couple went on to have two children, Levi Jackson Jr., and Carolyn Marie Lewis.

Early Career

After graduating from university, Mary Jackson worked as a teacher in Calvert County, Maryland, at an African American school. At this time, schools were still segregated in the American south. She also began tutoring college students, which she continued throughout her life.

She returned to Hampton in 1943, where she started work as a bookkeeper. Over the next eight years, she worked several different administrative jobs. She was a receptionist at the Hampton institute and the clerk at a nearby army base. She and Levi also started a family.


In 1951, Mary Jackson worked as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center in Hampton. The center was run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would go on to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Her work there was compared to a ‘human computer,’ providing data that would later prove essential to the US space program. Her manager at the time was Dorothy Vaughan, NACA’s first Black supervisor and another inspirational figure.

The department Jackson worked in, the West Area Computing Unit, was segregated and staffed entirely by African Americans. Virginia state law at the time enforced segregation in the workplace, meaning that white people and Black people had to use separate bathrooms and cafeterias. At the West Computing Unit, there was no lunchroom for African Americans, who instead had to eat at their desks, which Jackson particularly objected to.

After suffering these indignities for two years, Jackson decided that enough was enough. She made a complaint to one of her supervisors, Kazimierz Czarnecki. Czarnecki was impressed by Jackson and invited her to come and work for him rather than resign from NACA altogether. He would prove to be a mentor to Jackson for years to come.

Jackson began working for Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. This incredibly powerful wind tunnel was used to study the effects of high-speed winds on aircraft such as planes. It was here that she gained valuable experience conducting experiments. Realizing Jackson’s potential, Czarnecki encouraged her to take various engineering courses. Because of segregation, she had to obtain special permission to take classes alongside white students. She successfully passed through an engineer training program and was promoted to aeronautical engineer by what was now called NASA in 1958. This made Jackson NASA’s first Black female engineer.

The First Black Female Engineer

At the time, female engineers were very rare. In fact, during the 1950s, Mary Jackson may have been the only Black female engineer in the country. She enjoyed a prosperous engineering career for nearly 20 years, authoring and co-authoring numerous research papers on airflow around aircraft. She rose through various departments within NASA until she achieved the most senior engineering position. At this point, however, Jackson came to the bitter realization that she could rise no further as an African American and a woman.

During her years at NASA, Jackson worked tirelessly to promote the work of her fellow Black and female scientists and engineers. She helped others advance their careers by recommending what and where to study to be announced. However, Jackson was frustrated that her ability to continue this work was stunted because she couldn’t get a management-level role. So, to help others more easily, she was demoted in 1979 to become the manager of NASA’s equal opportunities program. In this new role, Jackson worked hard to improve the career prospects of the next generation of female and minority mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. She continued this work until she retired in 1985.

Beyond NASA

Throughout her incredible career, Mary Jackson earned many awards and honors for her charity work and her contributions to science. In addition, she and her husband were known to have an ‘open door policy for new employees at the Langley Research Center, helping them to get started in a new town and new career.

Jackson chaired and served on many different organizations’ boards and committees and was a Girl Scout Troop Leader for thirty years. She was repeatedly recognized for her leadership and service.

Mary Jackson’s Legacy

Mary Jackson passed away peacefully on the 11th of February 2005, at 83, in her hometown of Hampton. After her death, Jackson’s contributions to science and the US space program gained greater recognition.

In 2016, the life and career of Mary Jackson, along with her former colleagues, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, became the inspiration for Margot Lee Shatterley’s bestselling book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book was made into a critically acclaimed film soon after.

In 2017, the then 99-year-old Katherine Johnson dedicated a new, state-of-the-art computer research center to Mary Jackson at the Langley Research Center, where they both worked. Both women, alongside Dorothy Vaughan and another West Computing colleague, Christine Darden, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.

In 2021, NASA officially renamed its headquarters in Washington, D.C., after Mary Jackson. On February 26th, the building was formally renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.

Facts about Mary Jackson you may not know!

  • Mary Jackson was raised in Hampton, Virginia, by her parents, Frank and Ella Winston. It was here that Mary Jackson achieved the highest honors during her graduation from George P. Phoenix Training School.
  • A non-fiction book called Hidden Figures The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race was published in the market back in 2016 that featured the story of Mary Jackson. As well as the book, a film was made in the same year called Hidden Figures.
  • Mary Jackson was awarded the most senior engineering title at NASA after working for the institution for 34 years.
  • Mary Jackson eventually took the role of manager for the Affirmative Action Program and Office of Equal Opportunity Programs at NASA. Both of them were the Federal Women’s Program.
  • Hampton Institute awarded Mary Jackson bachelor’s degrees in physical science and mathematics in 1942.
  • In 1953 Mary Jackson went to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, conducting experiments in a high-speed wind tunnel. Czarnecki suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to become an engineer. Unfortunately, Virginia’s schools were still segregated at this time, so Mary had to obtain special permission to take classes with white students.
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