It was the summer of 1963, just one year before the Civil Rights Act would become the presiding federal law. That summer, my mother found herself to be the lone black employee in the massive enterprise of the NASA Data center.
Her legacy would still remain hidden today, had it not been for a passing comment she made to my children (ages 9 and 11) after watching the popular movie Hidden Figures. As the credits rolled, she turned to my son and daughter and said, “When I graduated from college I used to do a job very similar to the ladies in the movie.” I was shocked. I had only known my mother to be a high-school math and science teacher. I tried to play it cool, and casually suggested, “Mom, why don’t you tell the kids more about what you mean?”
Born in 1941 as Cynthia Ernestine Bowman, my mother was raised in the segregated south. Her hometown of New Orleans was built on the caustic legacy of the Louisiana slave trade. The law prevented her from attending white schools, swimming in the white area of the beach, or watching a movie in the white section of the theater.
Nonetheless, her father (a single dad, raising two young daughters), her grandparents and her community created as complete a life as possible by the limits of the day. Part of this can be attributed to the culture of New Orleans. Despite being a city forged significantly from slavery, it was also a bustling and thriving multicultural commercial port with plenty of demand for skilled, educated workers … of every color. As a result, slaves and, later, free blacks were able to build an urban society within their segregated confines.
In this “black’s only” microcosm, my mother attended her designated school and extracurricular activities. She went on to attend Xavier University, the country’s only historically black, Roman Catholic college. Known for graduating the most black scientists in the country, Xavier proved a challenging environment for a budding mathematician and physicist. One of my mom’s professors started the semester by saying, “This chemistry class will separate the doctors from the ditch diggers.” It was his full expectation that most class members would not finish with a passing grade. But with a twinkle in her eye, my mother happily recounted that she did pass.
Upon graduating with degrees in math, physics and education (the latter for the practical reason that most black women could not expect to build a career in science), my mother visited the university’s career placement office. To her amazement, she secured the one and only job for the Chrysler Space Division of the NASA Data Center in Slidell, LA.
My mother’s role as a Program Assistant at the NASA data center was to review and organize the punch cards that drove the programming of the Chrysler Aerospace engineers. She and the engineers would discuss these programs, which were then used to help build the Apollo space program. She entered her job with little practical experience. Unlike many of her Space Division colleagues, my mother didn’t know computer languages (such as FORTRAN). She had never even seen a mainframe computer until she joined Chrysler. Without the benefit of an official training program, my mother managed to teach herself the necessary programming languages and operations.
Shortly after her first year, the Chrysler Space Division began eliminating jobs and shifting work out of the Slidell location. At this time my mother knew there were no available options for her to continue as a black female in the space industry. So, she shifted her focus back to becoming an educator.
However, she has never stopped her science pursuits. Eventually, she added a master’s degree in math. And later, while a working mother, she completed a Ph.D. in microbiology, conducted graduate research on viruses and taught math and science in urban public schools. Today, at the age of 75, she is a twice-retired teacher, who can often be found at our kitchen table, teaching math and science to the descendants of her now unhidden legacy.