Rediscovering Women and People of Color in Science
Yvonne Clark’s path to working on the Saturn Five rockets that took astronauts to the moon started with burned toast and her desire to fly planes.
Y.Y., as she like to be called, had a longer road to that rocket project than most of her NASA colleagues. As a Black woman forging a career as an engineer in 1967, she struggled always for recognition of her merit and worth in the face of racism and sexism. Even with an excellent record of achievement in high school, the University of Louisville denied her application. “I couldn’t get in. I was a Black down South and segregation was still flourishing,” she told an interviewer. Same story at the University of Illinois. Accepted at Howard University, she studied the engineering she loved and graduated with distinction in 1951. As the first woman with a BS degree in mechanical engineering, however, she was not allowed to receive her degree with her male classmates because she was female. Y.Y. continued her education at Vanderbilt University, where she was the first woman to get a master’s degree in engineering management. She was also the first woman faculty member at Tennessee State University on the engineering faculty.
How did she come to travel this path? She showed an early interest in engineering and in all things mechanical. Her family loves to tell the story of the toaster. One morning, her father noticed that the toaster would only toast the bread on one side. He mentioned to the family that they would need to get a new one. Later that morning, Yvonne grabbed the toaster and took it up to her room. There, she took it apart to see if she could fix it. To her delight, she found the problem and repaired the broken appliance. She quietly returned the toaster to the kitchen. The next day it surprised the family to find the toaster working again. Her father quickly figured out Yvonne made the repair. He and her mother were both very supportive of her interest in making and in building things.
Where did she find the strength to overcome all the prejudice and discrimination that stood in her way? After all, she was both Black and a woman, both of which closed many opportunities to her at that time. In high school, for example, she could not take mechanical drawing because she was a woman. Undaunted, she took a course in aeronautics and joined the Civil Air Patrol, where she became the squad leader. Among other skills, she learned about flying planes and how to shoot rifles and pistols. Through hard work, she graduated at age sixteen.
She credits two factors which helped her overcome the many difficulties she faced. First, she stuttered. This was her first experience with other people treating her poorly and unfairly, not because of who she was but because of an irrelevant trait. She learned to say to herself, “It’s not me, it’s them.” This mantra helped her maintain her poise when dealing with the innumerable large and small acts of discrimination and prejudice in her daily life.
A second source of strength for her was her deep love and commitment to her family. She grew up in a nurturing household with two parents who doted on her and her brother. They made sure she got the best educational opportunities available to her, pointing her way to Howard and then Vanderbilt.
Even though engineering talent was scarce, Y.Y. found it difficult to get a job in her field. Companies weren’t interested, she says, in an engineer who was black and female. She persisted, however, finding more enlightened employers. First, she worked for Westinghouse and then at NASA on the Saturn Five rockets.
Later, she accepted the faculty position teaching engineering at Tennessee State University. She taught there for over fifty years with two stints in administration. Her teaching and her example ushered many young women and Black students into the field of engineering. As the first Black woman to join the Society of Women Engineers, she mentored and encouraged young women to become engineers.
Yvonne Clark is definitely one of the many women and Black engineers overlooked so often during their careers and often forgotten in the histories of the field. Y.Y. and other scientists and engineers like her are now being rediscovered, inspiring all of us by their examples.
For more stories of overlooked engineers check out my new book: Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions
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