Dr. Gladys Mae Brown West was born in Sutherland, Virginia. Her mother worked in a tobacco factory and her father worked for the railroad. Her family also owned a small farm and she spent much of her childhood harvesting crops. Dr. West saw education as a tool that would set her on a path to a different life, and at school, she quickly excelled.
At Dr. West's high school, the top two students from each graduating class received full scholarships to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), a historically black public university. Dr. West graduated as valedictorian in 1948, and was awarded the scholarship. Dr. West graduated from VSU in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. She immediately became a teacher and began saving money for graduate school. She returned to the university a few years later and earned a Master’s degree in mathematics.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center) as a computer programmer. There, she was the second Black woman ever hired and one of only four Black employees, one of whom was Ira West, the man who would later become her husband. Dr. West became a project manager for processing systems for satellite data analysis, and concurrently studied for and earned a second Master's degree, this one in public administration, from the University of Oklahoma.
In the early 1960s, Dr. West participated in an award-winning study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Subsequently, she began to analyze satellite altimeter data from NASA's Geodetic Earth Orbiting program, to create models of the Earth's shape (a field known as geodesy). She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. Dr. West's work cut her team's processing time in half, and she was recommended for a commendation.
At Dahlgren, Dr. West programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations for the shape of the Earth; an ellipsoid with additional undulations known as the geoid. To generate an accurate geopotential model Dr. West needed to use complex algorithms to account for variations in the gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth's shape. Dr. West's model became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).
After working at Dahlgren for 42 years, Dr. West retired in 1998 and set her sights on earning her Ph.D. Despite suffering a stroke soon thereafter, she persisted in her pursuit of her doctorate. As soon as she was discharged from the hospital, Dr. West focused on rehabilitation and resumed her studies. She soon completed her dissertation and earned her Ph.D. in public administration and policy affairs in 2000 at the age of 70.
Dr. West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). The AFSPC press release hailed her as one of "the 'Hidden Figures' …who did computing for the US military in the era before electronic systems." Of her contributions, Dr. West has been quoted as saying "When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, 'What impact is this going to have on the world?' You're thinking, 'I've got to get this right.'”
Dr. West was named the Virginia State University “Alumna of the Year" in 2018. In the same year, the BBC selected her as one of the “100 Women of 2018.” In 2021, she was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering, their highest individual honor. The same year, she was also awarded the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the development of satellite geodesy models.
This text is excerpted from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/nov/19/gladys-west-the-hidden-figure-who-helped-invent-gps, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladys_West, and https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gladys-West. To view footage of an interview with Dr. West, visit: https://www.dvidshub.net/video/645644/magnificent-gladys-mae-west.
Ann Lowe was born in rural Clayton, Alabama in 1898 to Jane and Jack Lowe. Lowe's interest in fashion, sewing and designing came from her mother Janey and grandmother Georgia, both of whom were skilled dressmakers who sewed for wealthy white families in the state. They taught Lowe to sew as early as age five. By the time Lowe was six, she had developed a fondness for using scraps of fabric to make small decorative flowers patterned after the flowers she saw in the family’s garden. This childhood pastime would later become the signature feature on many of her dresses and gowns. By age 10, she made her own dress patterns.
Lowe's mother died unexpectedly when Lowe was 16 years old. At the time, her mother was working on four dresses for a New Year’s Eve ball, at least one of which belonged to the first lady of Alabama. Lowe took over the project, and her successful completion of the gowns helped establish her as a skilled dressmaker in the state.
In 1916, a chance encounter in a department store with influential Tampa socialite Josephine Edwards Lee changed Lowe’s life. Mrs. Lee observed that Lowe’s outfit was fashionable and exceptionally well-made. Lowe informed her that she made the ensemble herself, which prompted Lee to invite Lowe to Florida to make the bridal gowns and trousseau for her twin daughters as their live-in dressmaker. After discussing the offer with her husband, who wanted her to remain a housewife, Lowe accepted the offer and moved with her son to the Lee family estate at Lake Thonotosassa in Tampa. She later described the opportunity as “a chance to make all the lovely gowns I’d always dreamed of.” In Tampa, she developed a list of loyal clients and supporters.
While reading a fashion magazine, Lowe, who was eager to enhance her skills, learned about the S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City. She applied for admission and was accepted. When she arrived at the Design School, the school’s director initially turned her away because of her ethnicity. Based on her portfolio, he had assumed she was white. She refused to leave. He eventually allowed her to attend the school, but segregated her in a separate classroom because her classmates refused to be in the same space with an African American. Lowe’s design abilities were far superior to those of her classmates, and her creations were used as models of exceptional work for the other students. Due to Lowe’s advanced skill and ability, she successfully completed the program in half the required time.
The 1950s marked a significant turning point in Lowe’s life and career. She opened Ann Lowe Inc. which was located at 667 Madison Avenue. Lowe was the first African American to own a couture salon on this fashionable street. Lowe’s fairytale-like gowns appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. She earned key commissions and obtained greater geographical exposure from high-end luxury department stores such as Montaldo’s, Neiman Marcus, and I. Magnin.
Lowe was known for being highly selective in choosing her clientele. She later described herself as "an awful snob,” adding: “I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register.”
Lowe’s most historically significant commission was the bridal gown and bridal party dresses for the 1953 wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who would become president of the United States in 1961. Lowe was chosen by the bride’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, with whom she had a long-standing relationship, as Lowe had created her wedding gown. Lowe also designed the debut gowns of Jacqueline Bouvier, her sister Caroline Lee Bouvier, and their step-sister Nina Auchincloss, which appeared in Vogue.
About 10 days before the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding, a ruptured pipe in Lowe’s building destroyed the wedding gown and 10 of the 15 bridesmaid’s dresses. Lowe and her team of seamstresses recreated the dresses in under a week, but ultimately, she sustained a $2,200 loss in income. She never reported the loss to the Kennedy family. While the wedding was a highly publicized event, Lowe did not receive public credit for her work until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Despite being a celebrated designer of one-of-a-kind dresses for the powerful and wealthy, many clients did not pay her for the costs of the labor and materials, or they asked her for prices that they knew were substantially below what they would have paid a white designer. Those circumstances left Lowe with a minimum amount of funds after paying her staff. In 1962, the U.S. Department of Revenue closed Lowe’s New York shop due to $12,800 owed in back taxes. The debts were later paid by an anonymous donor, who Lowe believed to be Jacqueline Kennedy.
Between 1968 and 1972, Lowe opened and operated the Ann Lowe Originals shop on Madison Avenue until her retirement. At that time, she moved to Queens to live with Ruth Alexander, who formerly worked in Lowe’s salon and whom she identified as her adopted daughter. On February 25, 1981, she passed away in Queens, New York.
A collection of five of Ann Lowe's designs are held at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three are on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Several others were included in an exhibition on Black fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in December 2016. From September 2023 through January 2024, the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library will exhibit a collection of Ann Lowe's works from the 1920s-1960s.
This text is excerpted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Lowe, https://nmaahc.si.edu/biography/ann-lowe, and https://www.winterthur.org/ann-lowe-american-couturier/. To view footage of an interview of Ms. Lowe, visit: https://youtu.be/wgZHWvmEqX8.
The second of eight children, Septima Poinsette Clark was born May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents, Peter Poinsette, who was enslaved at birth, and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, deeply valued education and prioritized access to it for their children notwithstanding their limited means.
Clark's first educational experience was in 1904, when she started attending Mary Street School. When Clark’s mother realized that she was not being educated at the school and was instead being made to sit on a set of bleachers with scores of other 6-year-olds, learning nothing all day, she quickly withdrew her from the school. An elderly woman across the street from their house was teaching girls, so Clark learned to read and write there. Her family could not afford to pay tuition, so Clark provided child care for the woman's children every morning and afternoon in lieu of payment.
Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Unable to afford college tuition, she sat for and passed a state examination at the age of 18 which licensed her to teach. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in Charleston's public schools, but was able to find a position teaching at Promise Land School in a rural school district on St. John's Island. There she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night.
In 1918, Clark returned to Charleston to teach sixth grade at Avery Normal Institute, a private academy for Black children. At that time, she also joined the local branch of the NAACP. While teaching at the Avery Institute, she noticed the gross discrepancies that existed between her school and the White school across the street. Clark's school had 132 students and two teachers. Clark not only worked there as a teacher, she also served in the capacity of principal. As the acting principal and teacher, Clark made $35 per week, while the other teacher made $25. Meanwhile, the school across the street had only three students, and the teacher who worked there received $85 per week. Her first-hand experience with these inequalities led Clark to become an active proponent for teachers of color. In 1920, she secured the first of many legal victories when Blacks were given the right to become principals in Charleston's public schools.
Clark settled in Columbia, South Carolina in 1929, where she began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School. During summers, Clark began studies at Columbia University in New York, and at Atlanta University in Georgia. Between 1942 and 1945, she received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina and a master's degree from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). While earning her B.A.,Clark took classes in the morning, taught from noon to five in the afternoons, and took more classes in the evenings. She was earning $62.50 per month in college and every summer she traveled to Maine to earn more money. In 1945, Thurgood Marshall, Clark and the other members of the Columbia, South Carolina chapter of the NAACP sponsored a lawsuit that won the equalization of teacher salaries.
In 1956, Clark obtained the position of vice-president of the Charleston NAACP branch. That same year, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Clark refused to leave the NAACP, and was consequently fired from her job by the Charleston City School Board, losing her pension after 40 years of employment. Thereafter, no school in Charleston would hire her.
Clark is most famous for establishing "Citizenship Schools" which taught Black adults how to read, as well as citizenship rights so that they could pass the voter registration exams that had become so prevalent in many Southern states. Citizenship Schools were frequently taught in the back room of a shop so as to elude the violence of those who did not want Blacks educated. In addition to literacy, Citizenship Schools also taught students to act collectively and protest against racism.
The schools ultimately spread to a number of Southern states, growing so large that the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961. With the increased budget of the SCLC, the Citizenship School Project was able to train over 10,000 teachers throughout the South, reaching and educating more than 25,000 people. By 1958, 37 adults were able to pass the voter registration test as a result of the first session of community schools. By 1969, about 700,000 African Americans became registered voters thanks to the Citizenship School movement. Clark came to national prominence, becoming the SCLC's director of education and teaching and the first woman to gain a position on the SCLC board. Clark worked closely with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. Washington and Clark both emphasized the importance of self-improvement before the importance of institutional reforms. DuBois and Clark agreed on the emphasis of education as the most important approach to the civil rights movement.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. She penned two memoirs: Echo in My Soul, and Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, which won the American Book Award. Clark died December 15, 1987. At the time of her death, she was awarded the SCLC's highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award.
This text is excerpted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septima_Poinsette_Clark, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Septima-Poinsette-Clark, and https://www.nps.gov/people/septimapoinsetteclark.htm.