03 Oct Centering the Hidden: Dwight Kirk on Mary Jackson’s Impact
Mary Jackson by Tracie Ching.
Dwight Kirk, author.
Sometimes when history rolls up on you on a sunny day, you just exhale and embrace the moment. That moment came for me last weekend at the dedication ceremonies for the new Mary W. Jackson Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Ms. Jackson became a national icon following the 2016 hit movie, “Hidden Figures,” which told the inspirational story of three Black women who played critical roles in sending the first American astronaut into space in 1962. Ms. Jackson, who was portrayed by Janelle Monae in the movie, was the first African American female engineer at nearby Langley Laboratory. She was a brilliant mathematician.
Mary Jackson was so much more than a trailblazer. She was a beloved community icon whose impact was felt on a personal level. She taught. She tutored. She mentored. She raised a family. She was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than 3o years. She opened her home to students from Hampton Institute who needed housing. She even took a demotion – voluntarily – later in her career to take a position that would allow her to open the door for other women in the math, science and engineering fields at NASA. Indeed, Mary Jackson answered the call of service over, and over, and over.
But she was virtually a forgotten hero in her hometown of Hampton. Nothing showcased her trailblazing legacy or her enormous community service.
That gaping omission became the catalyst for a campaign launched in 2017 by United Steelworkers Local 8888 to have the City of Hampton honor the late Ms. Jackson in some permanent, meaningful way. Five years later, after much legislative churning and frustrating delays, a beautiful 12,000 sq. ft. neighborhood center bearing her name just opened its doors in her old neighborhood.
It was a proud and historic achievement for the 10,000 Steelworkers who build nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers in the Newport News shipyard. They believed and persisted.
It was gratifying for me to have framed and guided the union’s Mary Jackson campaign. I also had the pleasure of designing a Mary Jackson poster exclusively for the Steelworkers. I was honored to present the framed poster to Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck at the grand opening of the Mary Winston Jackson Neighborhood Center, where it will be hung.
Now I can exhale, knowing a Black woman’s name is on a public building in Hampton and her legacy is permanently secure to inspire future generations.