Early African-American women in science & math
In honor of Ada Lovelace Day 2010, I thought I’d post some images of African-American women who worked as scientists and mathematicians in the 1940s and 1950s. I was inspired by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s post on black women in physics and astronomy and by Spellbound’s post on portraits of women scientists.
These are from my master’s project, “‘In Los Alamos, I feel like I’m a real citizen’: Black atomic scientists, education, and citizenship, 1945-1960.” It started as an experiment; I was interested in the history of science and technology, and I decided to look first in the African-American newspapers of the Cold War to see what they might have to say.
My research taught me a lot about the ways that gender ideologies and racially-segregated education affected African-Americans’ ability to study science before World War II. For the few Black men and women who did get a university education in the sciences, career opportunities were limited– teaching and medicine were almost the only options. The one exception was for scientists who lived on the south side of Chicago, where the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Lab (“Met Lab”) did some of the atomic research which contributed to the Manhattan Project. Most of the scientists of color who worked at the Met Lab were men; they included Ernest Wilkins, brother of NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before he was 18.
After the end of the war, some African-American women worked as at the Argonne National Laboratories south of Chicago and as “computers”– clerical workers who did mathematical calculations by hand– in other scientific and technical projects in the North. The kinds of work they did usually gets referred to as “clerical” or “technical” work rather than research science, a topic I discuss more in the paper.
These photos were published in Ebony, which generally tried to put an optimistic spin on African-American achievement– particularly in the professions. We can’t take the magazine’s statements about these women’s work at face value, but without oral history research or other sources to uncover their lives, it’s hard to know more.
If you’re interested in the history of African-Americans in Chicago, take a look at the Mapping the Stacks project, which is working to preserve archival collections that will be useful for researchers. They’ve got some really great materials.