Source: The Buffalo News (online May 2019)
Mamie Beale Johnson: Buffalo’s 'Hidden Figure'
By Charles Campbell
The Hollywood movie “Hidden Figures” is about three female African-American mathematicians at the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA): Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, Katherine G. Johnson, and Mary Jackson. These three women were part of the “brains” behind one of the greatest operations in history: the 1962 launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. This was an important achievement in space travel.
After viewing the movie “Hidden Figures”, I thought about Buffalo’s “Hidden Figure” in the name of Mamie Beale Johnson, an African-American mathematician who in the late 1940s began a 22-year career with Cornell Aeronautical Labs (now Calspan) in Buffalo, New York.
Mamie was a Buffalo native born on March 11, 1925 to Joseph L. and Emily Butler Beale. She had an older brother, Joseph J. Beale. Mamie’s father originally from Richmond, Virginia migrated to the Buffalo area, finished his high school education and worked at Bethlehem Steel Corp. all his adult life.
Mamie attended School #32 and Hutchinson-Central High School. After high school she enrolled at Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.) graduating in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. At Virginia Union she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Mu honor society. Studying math was atypical for an African-American woman at that time.
At a young age Mamie realized she had a great interest in and talent for mathematics. She credited her love for math to the intelligence, skill and wisdom of her father, Joseph Beale, Sr. Her father spent many hours playing mathematical games with her and her brother until she came to think of math as fun and was eager to learn. Her brother, Joseph, Jr. also enjoyed math and later became a professional engineer.
Mamie Johnson also gave much credit to Miss Amelia Anderson, one of Buffalo’s pioneer Black public school educators for encouraging her love of education and teaching. According to Mamie, Miss Anderson would gather neighborhood children and “she taught us some of the mathematical subjects such as Algebra after school. I loved to go and to learn.”
Returning to Buffalo after graduating from college, Mamie became the first African-American woman in 1948 to be hired by Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (CAL). Cornell Lab is a science and technology company founded in 1943 as part of the Research Laboratory of the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Division. Now privately operated, the facility is still located across the street from the airport and is known as Calspan. During the 1950s and 1960s, CAL was one of the leading independent organizations in the emerging field of highway safety.
In 1942, CAL began studying pilot impact injuries inside airplane cockpits. By 1951, this program included the Automotive Crash Injury Research (ACIR) project, and conducted automobile crash tests with dummies. The ACIR studied accident survival in relation to door security, rollover hazards, and bodily impact inside a car. Motor vehicle crashes were a leading cause of death in the United States. In the 1950s on average 35,000 people yearly were killed in automobile accidents.
Mamie Johnson worked in a primary operating unit called, Crash Investigations. She was a “human computer” doing many of the mathematical and statistical computations for the ACIR project. She was most proud of being part the ACIR staff team that recommended the addtion of seat belts, dashboard padding, crashworthy door locks, and recessed-hub steering wheels to production cars.
Ebony magazine, in its September 1950 issue, cited Mamie as an African-American “Pioneer in Science” in an article titled: ''More Than 200 Negroes Hold Key Scientific Jobs in Industry”
In 1970, she began a 20-year career with the University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) a tuition-free quality adult education and training program. She began as registrar, then was a research assistant and, community relations and recruitment coordinator. At EOC, she received the Certificate of Appreciation for Service and the Oxner/Lytle Award for Outstanding Service.
Married and mother of three daughters, Mamie was active in numerous civic and community activities and organizations, such as: Buffalo Black Media Coalition, United Negro College Fund, Miss Black USA Advisory Council, Women for Downtown , Community Action Organization, Camp Fire Girls of Buffalo & Erie County, Ujima Theater Company and Everywoman Opportunity Center.
She was also an active member of the Buffalo Chapter of The Links Inc., a charter member of the Buffalo Chapter of the Jack and Jill Clubs of America, the Harriet Tubman 300s, Women for Human Rights and Dignity and, a proud member Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. In addition, Mamie was longtime member of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, were she was pianist. She also served as organist for Lloyd’s Memorial United Church of Christ (now New Covenant) for 20 years.
Mamie’s three surviving daughters describe their mother as a very avid Bridge player, a great cook, high energy, fun-loving and always with a smile. Her husband of 39 years, former Masten Council Member Horace “Billy” Johnson, died in 1987.
Mamie Beale Johnson, Buffalo’s “Hidden Figure” died January 26, 2013 at the age of 87 years.
Resources: Uncrowned Queens; Criterion Newspaper; Buffalo News; Family Interviews; Ebony Magazine and other websites.
See also: A
Memorial Proclamation Celebrating the Life of Mamie Beale
(online May 2019)