When your grandmother is hidden: Duchess Harris reveals her grandmother’s hidden history at NASA

In 2011, my mother Miriam Mann Harris was approached by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to provide an oral history of her mother, Miriam Daniel Mann, who was in the first cohort of Black women to work at NASA in 1943. 

My grandmother was born in Covington, Georgia, on July 25, 1907. Her father was a barber and her mother was a schoolteacher. She grew up in Macon, Georgia, and graduated from Talladega College in Alabama with a major in chemistry and a minor in mathematics. After teaching school a few years, she married William S. Mann, Jr. and had three children while they lived in Savannah, Georgia. In 1942 the family moved to Virginia where Bill Mann became a professor at Hampton Institute (now University). 

In 1943, my grandmother heard about NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which preceded NASA) looking to hire women to do calculations by hand. My mother’s early memories are of her mother talking about doing math problems all day. Back then a lot of the math was done with a #2 pencil and the aid of a slide rule. 

Miriam Daniel Mann(Courtesy Photo)

My mother wrote, “I remember the talk of plotting graphs, logs, doing equations and all sorts of foreign-sounding terms. She would relate stories about the ‘colored’ sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria. She brought the first one home, but there was a replacement the next day. New signs went up on the bathroom door, ‘colored girls.’ 

As my mother continued: “Once the war was over, security wasn’t as rigid, which allowed us kids to get tours of the wind tunnels and see some of the actual planes that they did the math for. When NACA became NASA, my Mom worked on John Glenn’s flight ship and was present when he came to show his appreciation for their work. After becoming a widow she continued to work. My mother retired from NASA in late 1966 because of ill health and passed in May 1967.” 

I was born two years after my grandmother passed, in 1969, which was the year that the United States landed on the moon. I was inspired by my mother’s 2011 Oral History. In 2013 I was granted sabbatical and decided that my project would be to write about the Black women of NASA.

Duchess Harris (Courtesy Photo)

In 2014, Margot Lee Shetterly and I won a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and travelled to the NASA Archive. Margot decided to write “Hidden Figures.” I decided to write “Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.” My book is aimed at 6-12 graders and has the only lesson plan for this narrative in the country. 

Duchess Harris is professor and chair of American Studies at Macalester College. Her legal name is Miriam. She carries the tradition of three generations of Black women in her family who have either made history or written it. 

For more books written or edited by Duchess Harris check out:
Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton (Contemporary Black History) 
Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity 
Black Lives Matter (Special Reports) 

To learn more about the lesson plans within Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA, see online: “Human Computers at NASA” omeka.macalester.edu/humancomputerproject/about

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