News Omeka Powered: Human Computers at NASA

Part of an ongoing series where the people behind Omeka-powered sites talk about their content, process, and working with Omeka.

[Professor Duchess Harris is a Professor and Chair of the Department American Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul Minnesota, where she is also the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Faculty Coordinator.

In this post, she discusses the site Human Computers at NASA, which was a collaboration between Professor Harris and Margot Lee Shetterly, and their research assistants Lucy Short and Ayaan Natala. Using Omeka and Neatline, the site illimunates the history of the African-American women mathematicians who worked for NASA at Hampton Roads from the 1940s through the 1960s in segregated facilities, whose work contributed to the success of the United States’ space program.

1. Can you (briefly) tell us what led you to this project? Was there a preexisting collection of material related to the African American women who worked as mathematicians for NACA?

I have always wanted to write about the Black women who worked at NASA during World War II. I was born in 1969, which was the year that John Glenn went to the moon. I was always told that I was named after my grandmother, who passed away in 1967. She had worked at NASA from 1943–1966 on the calculations that made the flight possible.

2. Why did you decide to use Omeka to present this project?

I was advised by Dr. Rebecca Wingo, who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities to use Omeka. She said that it would be the best program for the kinds of materials that I wanted to showcase.

3. Has using Omeka and Neatline changed the way you think about the content? If so, how?

Using these programs has helped me bring “legitimacy” to my narrative because people can see the legal documents that prove that NASA was a plantation until 1950.

4. What is one of your favorite items to talk about when introducing people to the site?

I love directing people to the blueprint of the cafeteria that shows that there was a “Colored” section.

5. What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to build a project like yours?

I would tell anyone that a digital archive is one of the best teaching tools I have used in my career, which spans more than 20 years.

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