February is Black History month aka African American History month. Originally, it was observed only in the United States. But over time many other countries joined. This post features some African American women scientists and artists who made an impact on science and culture.
- Phillis Wheatley – A Slave Poet
- Josefine Baker an American in Paris
- Katherine Johnson from Human Computer to Space Mission Team Member
- Dr. Gladys Mae West and Your GPS
- Dr. Mae Jemison – An African American Woman Scientist and Artist
- In Conclusions: African American Women Scientists and Artists Made Huge Impacts in Their Fields
Phillis Wheatley Peters aka Phyllis Wheatly was the first African American and the third American women, who published a book entirely made of poems. She was born in Africa and sold into slavery. John Wheatley bought her as a servant to his wife Susanna. Mrs Wheatley and her two children educated Phillis to read and write as well as in theology, English, Latin, Greek and Ancient history. She wrote her first poem at age 13. It was published in the Newport Mercury. In 1773, she published her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral with financial support from the English Countess of Huntingdon, Selina Hastings. In the book’s preface, 17 Boston men witnessed that Phillis was the author. She promoted her book in England.
After her return, the Wheatleys freed her. Phillis last her supporters with the death of Susanna and John and other Wheatley-family members. She married John Peters, a free African American man. Their three children died in infancy. The couple struggled financially, and Phillis worked as a maid. She never found a publisher for her second volume of poems. Her financial struggle, the tension between America and Great Britain, and the Revolutionary War came into the way.
In Europe, Joséphine Baker is best known as a French entertainer of the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties despite being born as Freda Josephine McDonald in the US. Ms Baker renounced her US citizenship when she married Jean Lion in 1937. Note that in those times, women automatically received the citizenship of their husband in many European countries. She was also an agent in the French Resistance and a human rights activist.
Her career started as a vocalist and dancer in New York after her divorce from Willie Baker, her second husband. Here she sang and danced at the Plantation Club, Florence Mills’ Old Stomping Ground, and later in the chorus line of the Broadway Revues Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Paris was the big center for artists of all kinds of disciplines (e.g., Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Henry Miller, Anais Nin). In Paris, Joséphine Baker performed in the revues of the famous Folies Bergère. However, her breakthrough came at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in La Revue Nègre. In 1927, she became the first Black woman to play in a silent film (Siren of the Tropics). Mme Baker received standing ovation when performing at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1973.
Katherine Johnson entered college at age 15 and graduated with a B.S. in Mathematics and French at age 18. First she worked as a teacher due to lack of job opportunities. She married which meant the end of her teaching career at those time.
At age 34, she took a job in the NACA (later called NASA) space program to support her sick husband and three children. Her job was to analyze data and perform computations. A human computer like many other women. However, she wanted to learn more about the background of her work, and started to attend meetings. She learned so much that she could leave her job as a human computer, and became a team member of various space missions. Among other things, she was involved with the calculations for the flight path of Apollo 11 for its Moon landing and following missions.
Margot Lee Shetterly‘s film Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race gave overdue credit to the “women computers”. Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal and NASA Group Achievement Award. She died at age 101.
Dr. Gladys Mae West is an American mathematician who was involved in geodesy. She strongly contributed to modeling the geoide-shape of the Earth.
Note that the Earth actually isn’t a sphere, but flattened at the Poles and bulged at the Equator due to the Earth’s rotation. Therefore, the Earth’s “radius” is 3963 miles (6378 km) and 3950 miles (6356 km) at the Equator and Poles, respectively.
For many scientific problems, for instance the determination of an area weighted mean near-surface temperature, the only 13 miles (22 km) difference in radius between a sphere and the actual geoide is negligible. However, in satellite navigation, this difference plays a big role.
Dr. West also contributed big to planetary sciences. In 1956, Dr. West started to work on a study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Her work at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory finally led to the invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS). In other words, she helps you to find your way in a new to you city. How great is that?
Musical fans may know Dr. Mae Jemison as the choreographer of Out of the Shadows. Star Trek: The Next Generation fans may know her as Lieutenant Palmer in the “Second Chances”. When you became a Mom in the last decade, you may know her as a children book author. A collector of post stamps may even recall her face from a 1996 post stamp.
Interestingly, as a child, Mae like me loved dancing and wondered why there were only male astronauts in the Apollo program (more on how NASA inspired me). She reportedly had said
Everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being really really irritated that there were no women astronauts.
Like me, she was a background dancer for West Side Story. However, while my appearance was a high school performance, hers was high profile. In the early 1970s, at age 16, she joined University of Stanford – a mainly male white dominated place. After her graduation, she joined Cornell Medical School earning a M.D. in 1981. From 1983-1985, she served in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Upon her return to LA, Dr. Mae Jemison worked as a General Practitioner, and took further engineering classes.
Later, she joined NASA to work in launch support. In June 1987, she joined the astronaut training program. In 1992, she spent almost eight days in the Earth’s orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This flight made her the first African American woman astronaut and being the first African American science mission specialist. While orbiting Earth, she conducted research on motion sickness and weightlessness. A year later, she left NASA to found a technology company. Later she was involved in various non-profit foundation and educational work. Needless to say, she holds many honorable degrees and received various precious awards.
These African American women scientists and artists have/had contributed notably to advance their respective fields. Each of them contributed to make our society a better place.
They had to take a lot of hurdles when pursuing their careers. At their time, both culture and science were male white fields. It was already tough to be a woman in STEM in the 1980s. Read what it was like studying meteorology in the 1980s as a woman (and belonging to a minority).
Despite such great role models of African American women scientists and artists, there still exist glass ceilings. For instance, women scientists still fear to look their best out of fear to jeopardize their career by being perceived to be too fashionable/pretty.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Ed., 2005. Black Women in America. Second edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press. pp. 140–141.
Jemison, Mae, 2001. Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments of My Life. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 978-0-439-13196-4.
Johnson, K., 2018. Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson. ISBN: 1534440836.
Kramm, G., Dlugi, R., Berger, M., and Mölders, N., 2020. Meridional Distributions of Historical Zonal Averages and Their Use to Quantify the Global and Spheroidal Mean Near-Surface Temperature of the Terrestrial Atmosphere. Natural Science, 12, 80-124. doi: 10.4236/ns.2020.123012.
Shields, J.C. Ed., 1988. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506085-7
Smithsonian, 2019. Women: Our Story. DK Publishing, New York.
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